American competitiveness and the smart grid

Phil Carson | Mar 03, 2010


Three things happened earlier this week that provided one of those synchronicity moments, with implications for the future of my country.

First, I had a background briefing with a superconducting cable firm, which is a bit of a misnomer, since that is a nascent technology only on the verge of commercialization. Second, three reports on superconducting cables landed on my desk from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Third, Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, wrote yesterday on the topic of American competitiveness.

As a journalist covering the smart grid, I recognize that democracy is messy and that the interaction between government and the market is often fraught with peril. (See my colleague Bart Thielbar's column today for that angle.) But there's no doubt that many of today's start-ups and research-and-development advances got a boost from government funding and national laboratory work, as in the thing called the Internet. The labs license their work on FRAND terms - that means fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms - to seed commercialization on the market.

The smart grid connection? If we want to sustain our world leadership, clean and efficient production and use of energy is one path forward. Innovations that raise the grid's IQ and help resolve imbalances between electricity production and demand can preserve and sustain our lifestyles going forward. Information and communication technology is being brought to bear on grid issues and, regardless of how messy the resulting evolution is, it's going to take place somehow and there's no turning back to business-as-usual.

Yesterday, Friedman quoted Paul Otellini, chief executive at Intel, the chip maker, who in turn quoted a study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation that found the United States ranked sixth among the top 40 industrialized nations in innovation competitiveness. The same study found that, judged by the "rate of change in innovation capacity" - a measure of preparedness for the future - the United States ranked last. Let the devil take the hindmost.

Otellini suggested that, among other things, the U.S. ought to raise the research-and-development tax credit by five percent to encourage startups.

Add a few factoids: Some of the companies that work on superconducting cables began as startups. EPRI finds that "for power grids, the need for greatly enhanced transmission system capacity is a rapidly emerging challenge. Several technologies exist to meet this need, including . superconducting DC cable systems [which are] still in the conceptual development stage but [have] the potential to dramatically change the transmission landscape in North America."

The advantages of superconducting DC cables - which I use simply as an example of today's thesis, yes there are other competing technologies - are high efficiency and effective at transmitting huge amounts of electricity over long distances, or even short, small-footprint connections in urban areas.

These lines must be buried underground and proponents claim that cost estimates may soon rival that of overhead towers. This claim, if borne out, would make underground cables a solution in highly sensitive areas, such as the vast stretches of still-worthy backcountry in the West where I live. (Do not underestimate NIMBY power.) It has security implications. (Again, don't get hung up on the assumptions, stay with the point.)

Finally, in my conversation with the vendor who is pursuing superconducting DC cable technology, I heard the following comments:

"The race is on. China, Korea and Japan are big on high-temperature superconducting cables."

"We're at the chicken-or-the-egg point in development."

"Superconductivity research and development has been hit by budget cuts. We'd like to see continued support for initial installations to help scale production."

Sure, what benefits Intel benefits Otellini. What benefits superconducting DC cable technology benefits the companies and workers pursuing it. The looming federal deficit ties our hands to a degree.

But smart choices under prevailing constraints have always challenged us. Where there's a will, there's a way. Sometimes what's good for a few really is good for the many.

Every major industrialized nation in the world is pouring money into R&D on advanced technology to win the clean energy race and achieve a commensurate leadership position for this century. But in the United State we're dithering, whining about government "picking winners and losers" and quibbling over every last inequity.

Let's just take a historical perspective: we won the race to space and resulting advances in computing and communications and missile technology gave us huge advantages in information and communication technology and defense. We can do the same with ICT and the smart grid. Or consign our children and future generations to second-class status. Time is blowing by.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily





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Based on what I know, subject to more current data, the highest critical temp for a superconducting cable is 39K, or nearly -390 degrees Farenheit. As I have posted before, implementation is a devilish taskmaster.

Cable cooling, apart from all else, will have its own very large carbon footprint. I fail to see how the elimination of Watt losses eclipses the Watt expendatures toward cooling cables. Instinctively, it appears that the gulf is wide and deep.

There is of course a problem with eliminating losses: system fault (short circuit)  current. Today's electrical equipment is designed to a handful of standard fault current capacity classes. These classes were constructed according real world conductor losses. Ironically, the lower the losses, the higher the fault current and the more expensive the equipment because it must be braced for the larger magnetic forces that are exerted by high currents. What happens when losses approach zero? Fault currents approach infiinty. In short, low system losses fight low equipment costs. Just saying....

With respect to burying lines, there are reasons why transmission voltage class insulated cables are very rarely buried: splicing these cables is insanely expensive and cable manufacturers haven't yet found a way to make an infinately long cable. Serioiusly, even burying medium voltage cables tends to be prohibitively expensive.

Finally, regarding US competitiveness, the following quote from the referenced report is telling: "In part because the EU-10 are starting from a lower base, but also because of some of the policy steps these nations have taken, they have made even faster progress, at a rate slightly above average and considerably higher than that of the United States. The Baltic states in particular have shown rapid rates of progress."

From this quote I better understand how the US managed to rank fairly low in competitiveness: we started from a higher base.

As much as I value efforts to spur the US on to even higher levels of innovation and competitiveness, I think it's important to bear in mind that calculations and rankings of the type referenced, despite best efforts, remain fundamentally subjective and are always relative (rather than absolute).