Transmission constraints and technology developments may hasten emerging applications.
Sure, superconductor technology might have lots of potential, but it can't do anything for me today.
That has been the assumption in the energy industry. But events of the past year, including the installment of superconductor reliability solutions onto grids and even the launching of an energy-centric superconductor company by a 30 year-old mainstay of the superconductor industry, indicate that the future just might be now.
John Howe, vice president, electric industry affairs, at American Superconductor Corp., has been very outspoken on this topic, but others concur as well.
Consider Intermagnetics General Corp. of Schenectady, N.Y. (www.igc.com), which was founded in 1971 and produces superconductor materials for traditional applications such as medical uses of magnetic resonance imaging. Last March IGC founded IGC SuperPower. The company aims to exploit its superconductor know-how in the energy arena.
"It's only in the last few years that we saw [superconductor power technology] as a major business opportunity," says Pradeep Haldar, general manager of IGC SuperPower.
First Deployment: A Grid Upgrade On Wheels
Materials with superconductor potential can achieve superconductivitythat is, zero resistance to the flow of electricityonly when cooled to ultra-low temperatures (hundreds of degrees below freezing). Due to the difficulty and cost of achieving such low temperatures, superconductor technology has been commercially viable for only a select range of applications such as MRI. Until recently, that is.
Possibilities for the technology took a big step forward in the late 1980s, when high-temperature superconducting wire (HTS) was discovered. Granted, the term high temperature is relative: HTS wire still needs to be cooled well below minus 200 degrees, but it's from five to 20 times warmer on the Kelvin scale than traditional superconducting materials.
"The economic equation is transformed," says Howe. "It now makes sense. When you look at the benefits you get from superconductivity-high capacity, efficiency, and so forth-you can now pay for the cooling. You get the benefits, and, net, the calculations work out."
And so, out comes Westborough, Mass-based American Superconductor with its family of product offerings. Its Distributed Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage (D-SMES) system, for one, according to Howe, increases grid reliability without the time and red tape that goes with siting a new power line. Last July the company installed six D-SMES devices on Wisconsin Public Service's grid to help the utility solve reliability problems.
WPS found itself confronted with high load growth in an isolated corner of its grid, making it vulnerable to voltage differentials during system faults. WPS couldn't afford to wait the three or four years to get a new power line sited and installed. So, by deploying the D-SMES devices, says Larry Borgard, vice president of transmission and engineering, WPS essentially was "protecting from having the system collapse."
Billed as the world's first commercial superconductor-based solution for grid reliability, the American Superconductor D-SMES devices sit inside mobile tractor trailers at various spots on the grid. In the event of a voltage drop that could cause the system to falter, the devices give relief by shooting a small burst of energy onto the grid. That energy, stored inside the tractor trailer, is available "literally on an instantaneous basis," says Howe. "The response time is less than a millisecond."
Borgard acknowledges that the D-SMES devices are not a long-term solution; putting up a new line is inevitable. The challenge, though, was ensuring that the system wouldn't collapse in the meantime.
"We needed a bridge from today to [the new transmission line]," he says.
Howe is quick to point out that because the devices come on wheels, they can be redeployed, so that as the needs of a system change, "[y]ou're not stuck with a stranded asset." In fact, that may have been an attractive feature of the devices to WPS.
"We don't plan on moving them in the next three or four years, but I think that is a potential advantage in that when we do get our transmission line built, we can pick them up and move them to another part of our service territory if we see a need there," says Borgard. He adds that his reliability solution-on-wheels could even be resold.
So how did the devices work for WPS? When called on last summer, they did fire successfully, Borgard reports. "The net effect [was] that industrial customers and customers with sensitive equipment didn't see as significant a voltage drop as they would have without these devices."
Still, Borgard adds, last summer's mild conditions didn't truly test the new devices, so WPS will have to wait until this summer to learn their true potential.
Up Ahead: Super-Capacity Cables
Power cable is another American Superconductor product that should be serving the needs of a utility in the near future. The company is working with Pirelli Cables and Systems, the world's largest power cable manufacturer, to produce what it calls the first HTS power cable ever to be installed on a utility grid, in Detroit Edison's territory. (American Superconductor is producing the HTS wire, which Pirelli is putting inside its cable.) The project, which has collaboration from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Electric Power Resource Institute, remains experimental compared to the D-SMES application for the WPS grid. It should be impacting the power industry before long, though.
How powerful are these HTS wires? In a downtown area of Detroit, nine old copper cables will be replaced by just three superconducting cables. In an era when "distribution real estate" is an increasingly hot commodity, the benefits of HTS cable could be significant, especially in urban areas.
And there's another urban-related advantage to the high-tech cables that HTS manufacturers are trumpeting: no excavation required. At least, that's what the Detroit project is out to prove. When the cable is installed this spring, project stakeholders will be testing the implementation part of the process as well, with conventional crews going down into manholes and actually splicing cables.
"So what we want to prove out here is not only that the power transfer capability makes sense, but the fact that the cable itself, which is built by conventional cable techniques, is easily maintainable and operated," says Bernie Ziemianek, product line director at EPRI.
And while the project technically is a test, its results might be more than that ultimately. "It's a test, but it could turn into being a full-time power transfer cable," Ziemianek says.
Superconductor cable is one area where newcomer IGC SuperPower could compete with American Superconductor down the road. The primary difference between the two companies is that while American Superconductor has embraced first-generation technology to move full-steam ahead in getting several products to market, IGC has focused on second-generation technology, with the intention of entering the market in three or four years.
Still, IGC is well into the demonstration phase. Using the high-tech cable on the customer side in this case, the company has installed a 100-foot-long, 12.5-kilovolt superconducting power cable at the headquarters of Southwire Co., itself a wire and cable manufacturer. Installation was completed and the cable connected to a live load last February, powering three of Southwire's manufacturing plants.
"We look at it as the first major installation that's being run on a continuous basis on a commercial site for cable installation," says IGC SuperPower's Haldar.
And Haldar makes no apologies for his company's delayed market entry. "[Introduction of IGC's product] is further down the road, but we think it's going to have a much [broader] application because the costs are going to be a lot lower."
What is IGC's reaction to American Superconductor's pending accomplishments in Detroit with its first-generation technology? "We think it's great for the industry, and for us, too. That is a necessary next step," says Haldar.
On the Horizon: More Players Eye Slice of the Pie
For both companies, the applications don't end with cables and D-SMES. American Superconductor is touting its older SMES technology for power quality on the customer side, and notes that its applications run the gamut of the energy industry: generation, transmission, and usage. For its motors program, the company has teamed with Rockwell Automation. Superconductors can shrink the size of motors, bringing down cost, and also increase efficiency somewhat.
In the works at IGC, meanwhile, is the fault current controller, a product that offers a flip-side reliability solution to American Superconductor's SMES product. Whereas the American Superconductor devices protect against voltage drops, IGC's product would protect against power surges; in essence it will be a high-tech, giant version of the surge protector commonly used to safeguard a personal computer. According to IGC, Lockheed Martin estimates a potential domestic market in this area of between $3 billion and $7 billion during the next 15 years.
IGC also has teamed with major transformer manufacturer Waukesha Electric Systems to produce a superconducting transformer. "A lot of the transformers in the U.S. are reaching the end of their useful life," says Haldar. "Some of them were installed 30, 40 years ago. So there's a bubble that's going to happen over the next five, 10 years in terms of trying to replace these transformers."
The superconducting nature of the transformers makes them half the size and weight of a conventional transformer. Also, says Haldar, the superconducting transformers-which, unlike conventional transformers, require no oil, eliminating at least one environmental issue-do not wear down when running at peak loads for long periods of time, as do conventional transformers.
IGC apparently is so confident that the hunger for superconductor applications in energy will keep expanding that it is perfectly content to wait out the three or four years before diving into the market. "There is definitely room for more than one player in this industry," Haldar says.
Several big players overseas have the same idea. The nascent industry also includes Siemens and Vacuumschmeltze out of Germany, Denmark's NKT, and Japan's Sumitomo Electric and Hitachi.
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