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Superconducting Power Grid Launches In New York 264

Posted by Soulskill
from the so-i-rewired-it dept.
EmagGeek writes "IEEE is running a story about a new superconducting power grid that was energized in April in New York State. The lines operate at 138kV and are cooled to 65-75K to maintain superconductivity. These lines are run underground and can carry 150 times more electricity than copper lines of the same cross section. The project is funded with taxpayer dollars through the Department of Energy." A related story at MarketWatch indicates that this is part of a large-scale effort to upgrade aging infrastructure.
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Superconducting Power Grid Launches In New York

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  • Hmmm... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Saturday July 12, 2008 @02:13AM (#24162249) Homepage Journal
    From TFA:

    Besides economics, another advantage the company is touting is that the cables can prevent fault currents, surges that are caused by grid-scale short circuits. Superconductors have an inherent current-limiting ability in that if the current increases past a certain threshold, they lose their superconducting abilities and become normally resistive, damping the current.

    Hmm, interesting, but there's more. simply follow the links in TFA and you'll come to these:

    "So there's been a stir over the disclosure that AMSC is under investigation by the office of Representative John Dingell, a Democratic congressman from Michigan, one of the most influential U.S. legislators, and an aggressive inquisitor."

    "The incident that aroused Dingell's suspicions was the award in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security of a multi-million dollar no-bid contract to AMSC to develop and test what it's calling Secure Super Grids in New York City. Working with the local utility Consolidated Edison Co., AMSC plans to develop and install superconducting cables that would connect substations in a much tighter mesh, so that if stations or feeder cables fail, power can be instantly rerouted. Feeder cable failures were implicated in the 1999 and 2006 New York City neighborhood blackouts."

    Wow, I didn't know the DHS was responsible for awarding no-bid contracts to energy interests. There ain't no business like no-bidness!

  • by Zymergy (803632) * on Saturday July 12, 2008 @02:33AM (#24162313)
    What happens when a 'Terrorist' finds a way to purge/rupture the coolant? *POOF*
    What happens if lightning directly strikes the conductor's coolant jacket? Could that cause a coolant jacket leak?
  • Saving Energy (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dlevitan (132062) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @02:36AM (#24162325)

    Maybe the US will now leapfrog from an antiquated power distribution system to the most advanced in the world. Maybe. One positive aspect of this is the reduction of energy loss due to the superconductivity. This may also allow long distance lines to be run (even though the cooling will be a problem) which might help balance out the grid when needed.

    According to Wikipedia, super conducting cables will use roughly half the energy saved for cooling, but since losses are around 7%, that's still a rather high amount of energy saved.

  • by RustinHWright (1304191) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @03:32AM (#24162503) Homepage Journal
    Well, in a perfect world (we can at least hope) lines would be kept a bit below theoretical optimum temperature and surrounded with some high thermal mass cladding within the insulation. That would at least buy some time for the system to get repaired. Since you're dealing with a cylindrical cross-section your surface area to volume ratio is at least as good as it can get to minimize heating.
    There are many, many ways to build a system to manage loss of coolant, nuclear reactor scrambles being obvious extreme versions. Some of these approaches could be used in a case like this. But we're dealing with Con Ed here, the guys who neglected maintenance such that we ended up having three major blackouts in ten years. So I'm not optimistic. The only thing that we should remember is that at least in theory such problems are somewhat addressable, not least by just the kind of rerouting that this system is supposed to make much easier and faster.
  • People have been blowing up conventional electricity pylons for decades. They make great targets because a single tower collapse takes out the whole circuit. Of course we call them 'heroes' not 'terrorists', but the principle is the same: []
  • Re:Saving Energy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RustinHWright (1304191) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @03:37AM (#24162537) Homepage Journal
    I keep wondering about that number re cooling costs. How much is that affected by insulation? By how close to capacity the lines are run at? By scheduled maintenence? I dunno about you, but in my experience, operating costs of complex systems are very subject to change. And seeing how much money the contractors stand to make from building these, they're going to tend to estimate low on cost and high on efficiency, just as they have for nuclear power plants, incineration plants, and so on.
    Am I saying that the lossiness and cooling costs numbers are too optimistic? For now, probably yes. But in terms of thinking of the long term promise of the technology, those numbers are probably too pessimistic to at least the same degree.
  • Re:Forget wires (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Duncan Blackthorne (1095849) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @03:50AM (#24162577)
    What about if photovoltaic research increases the efficiency of solar cells to the point where having a roof full of them supplies more power than your house would ever need (even if, say, you were doing arc welding in your garage)? What about advances in hyrdogen fuel cell technology to the point where your water heater is replaced by a combination unit that heats water for your house, and also supplies electricity, yet still runs off of natural gas (BTW this is available in Japan as we speak)? These technologies aren't very far off now, and the combination of them, plus high efficiency batteries for storage of excess power generated would give every homeowner the option of being completely off the grid.
  • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @04:04AM (#24162627) Homepage Journal

    In a standard copper line the value is zero: we don't cool them

    Conventional underground transmission lines are oil cooled. Superconducting transmission lines have almost zero resistance and should require less cooling once they reach working temperature.

  • And in further news (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CharlieG (34950) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @04:21AM (#24162693) Homepage

    ConEd (NYC's electric supplier) got approvale for a 23% rate increase yesterday

  • Re:Wow, !vaporware? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by martinw89 (1229324) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @04:36AM (#24162757)
    IANASCE, but I still can't seem to find any large commercial uses of high temperature superconductivity.

    You might want to ask anyone who's ever been in a MRI why the dang thing works at all without it's superconducting super magnets.

    According to Wikipedia [] and your information, MRIs generally use Liquid helium to cool things down to 4K. That's not a high temperature even in the superconductor world.

    oh hey, and what about the maglev train in japan, or various ones in germany?? do you honestly think that doing magleg based on normal electromagnets would be energy efficient?

    Only one major Maglev line [], the JR-Maglev, uses high temperature superconductors. JR-Maglev [] is not commercial; it's just research. Currently, there are two major commercial Maglevs [], neither of which use high temperature superconductors (let alone any superconducting at all).

    These are the reasons I felt that high temperature superconducting is vaporware. It gets a lot of research and demos, but not much real world application. The Japan demo maglev is close, but it was never put in large scale or commercial use. The power grid in TFA seems to be one of the first mass commercial uses of superconducting used. YMMV, someone point out my fail if there have been more uses of high temperature superconductivity in the public space.

  • Re:Forget wires (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hcdejong (561314) <hobbes AT xmsnet DOT nl> on Saturday July 12, 2008 @05:01AM (#24162865)

    For places with high-density population such as Manhattan, generating locally isn't feasible for now, and won't be for a long time to come. Improving the grid here is worthwhile.

  • by WindBourne (631190) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @05:17AM (#24162921) Journal
    If you are an American and work, you most like did. This one was funded by federal taxpayers.
  • Re:reliability ? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pipingguy (566974) * on Saturday July 12, 2008 @05:32AM (#24162957) Homepage
    In order to keep liquid nitrogen from just boiling off (relatively) extreme insulation is required. Liquid hydrogen is much worse in this regard.

    In cold boxes (which feature pretty complex, closely-packed piping) we'd use at least 12" of perlite insulation from exterior heat sources. For critical individual lines you're talking about vacuum jacketing with at least a 1" vacuum annular space and special shielding, which is what those "high-tech", stainless steel containers are (sort of). These containers and the similar piping are incredibly expensive to fabricate and install.

    The notion that "supercooling" with liquefied gases anywhere outside of labs and special installations is just absurd.

    But wait! Cryogenics were used to create the A-bomb, so there MUST be a conspiracy there!
  • Re:Wow, !vaporware? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jacquesm (154384) <j&ww,com> on Saturday July 12, 2008 @05:36AM (#24162975) Homepage

    In Canada in a place called crowleys ridge I came upon a truck sized super conductor based stabilizer used to connect the wind farm at that location to the power grid.

    Not exactly mass market but definitely an application of superconduction.

  • by pipingguy (566974) * on Saturday July 12, 2008 @06:46AM (#24163205) Homepage
    So it costs some significant amount of power to cool them down to their working temperature, but once there, the super conductors keep their temperature almost for free, you only have to make up for what is lost because of the insulation.

    So if I turned off my freezer all I'd have to do to keep the low temperature would be to "top up" the cooling agent to maintain heat lost through the insulation? Isn't that what refrigerators do already?

    Do you have any clue how cold it has to be for superconducting? "Making cool" is extremely power-intensive when you want to go down to those temperatures.
  • Re:Saving Energy (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Crobar (1143477) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @08:05AM (#24163457)

    Your comment on antiquated power systems reminded me of an article [] I saw on the New York Times a couple of years ago. As a New Yorker (and an engineer) I was totally stupefied that anyone in Manhattan were still using DC power. (Data center trolls - I see you - I mean "DC off the grid" which no one would be crazy enough to hook straight into.) To make matters worse, most of the tunnels (we don't have telephone poles) are below sealevel and consequently, filled with water.

    I once asked a Coned linesman about that. He say that some of the wiring in those tunnels is over a hundred years old. How do they keep them dry? By pumping N2 through the lines. So if you are ever downtown and you see a random LN2 tank on a street corner, you can say with relative assurity that it is feeding a power line. Lets hope superconductors can swim!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 12, 2008 @09:09AM (#24163765)

    More reasons to do the power transport in DC, then convert it back to AC for the substation transformers.

  • by DrLudicrous (607375) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @01:33PM (#24165205) Homepage
    The inductive losses should be zero if it is a DC current. I believe this to be true because I have a 7 Tesla SC magnet that has the same electrons running around inside of it that it did over 8 years ago. The only thing I have done to maintain this current is add liquid helium twice a year (it boils off) and liquid nitrogen every week. The liquid helium costs about 400-500 bucks a year, and the LN2 is virtually free- I use maybe 40 or 50 L a week, so over a year, that is MAYBE a thousand bucks, if even that. It is so inexpensive (cheaper than pop) that we don't pay for it out of our research group's funds, our department or perhaps the University just subsidizes it.
  • by welsh git (705097) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @01:38PM (#24165241) Homepage

    Why is the voltage so high ?

    Surely, if there is zero resistance, then there is no need to reduce the current to save on energy loss, so why still transmit at such a high voltage with the superconductor ?


  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 12, 2008 @02:15PM (#24165433)
    Oh come now. It's perhaps a dream target for terrorists, perhaps even for radical fundamentalist Muslims, if you stretch, but I doubt that every one of the billion Muslims in the world goes to sleep dreaming about blowing up power grids and bringing the U.S. to its knees.
  • by GPS Pilot (3683) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @05:43PM (#24166857)

    High voltage AC transmission lines are famously inductive, such that transmission line workers where metal mesh in their suits so they don't get the weird feeling of the oscilating magnetic field through their bodies.

    That's wild... it is news to me that humans are able to directly perceive even very strong magnetic fields. For example, I don't think patients feel anything when undergoing an MRI [] procedure. Can you cite a source for this information? Thanks

  • by afidel (530433) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @06:07PM (#24167049)
    Huge engineering problem nothing. They freaking pump water uphill to bring it from the north and diverted the Colorado river 242 miles to bring water into the central valley, I don't think it's at all undoable to bring a superconducting line a similar distance.
  • by jpfalc (1029772) on Saturday July 12, 2008 @06:40PM (#24167285)

    I'm from the area (very close to said power plant) so I figured I could clarify on why Long Island is the NIMBY capital of the world:

    There are very few rivers and streams on Long Island, and most of them are in located in parks or protected woodlands. This means that almost all the drinking water for LI residents comes from ground water - most of it is contained in large underground aquifers.

    Nuclear catastrophes usually involve radioactive material finding its way into the ground - and eventually the groundwater. This is a very unlikely scenario, but if it happened the outcome would be devastating. Houses here tend to be very expensive (compared to other parts of the country) and land values are always on the rise, which makes them a great investment for many residents who plan to sell their houses years down the road, move somewhere cheaper, and live off the difference. Any contamination of the groundwater would make housing values plummet and stay that way for a very, very long time. This is just not a risk that homeowners here are willing to take for a tiny decrease in electricity costs. Whether or not they are well-informed is a different issue.

    Add in the fact that shipping in drinking water from anywhere would be very difficult/expensive and a major evacuation of the island could take weeks. Both of these go double for the eastern parts of the island where there are few/no highways/ports. A major hurricane here would put New Orleans to shame.

Real Users find the one combination of bizarre input values that shuts down the system for days.