DOE Needs to support Development of Underground Transmission

Developing elpipes to be "shovel ready" will cost around $35 million and take 5 years I estimate...a drop in the bucket compared to what we are spending now on a mishmash of incompatible technologies that will be made redundant by a future supergrid. We are in fact wasting money and simultaneously raising barriers against a future supergrid (because a lot of these new power lines will become stranded assets if we ever get around to a supergrid). This is mostly a reflection on DOE's lack of focus on the grid. I think Anjan Bose is doing a good job by comparison to past DOE actions, but still DOE is doing NOTHING to enable high capacity underground transmission since they pulled the plug on HTS lines (which are nowhere near ready for prime time; I support that decision); but why have they not supported elpipe development?

DOE has an institutional prejudice in favor of innovations that have the Gee Whiz! factor, especially if it involves new material science. For example both Type 1 and Type 2 (HTS) superconducting cables have gotten a lot of support from DOE because of this high tech materials & processing prejudice. The shadow side of this "new materials" enthusiasm at DOE is that important innovations that do NOT require new materials are neglected. My invention elpipes is just such an innovation, and it addresses an immensely important problem (how can we build an underground supergrid?) for which there are only 3 feasible generic solutions for high capacity (>10 GW) power lines:

1.          Superconducting Lines: MgB2 (hydrogen-cooled Type 1 superconductor) or HTS (Type 2, non-metallic) lines will not be voltage compatible with an HVDC supergrid that also also includes cables and overhead lines. Due to heat transfer limitations at the junctions to conventional conductors, max voltage ~130kV, so a superconducting supergrid would not be voltage compatible with current HVDC technology. Apparently, this was DOE's American Alternative to an HVDC supergrid. I hope it happens some day, but it is not ready for prime time yet. And since DOE abandoned the superconducting grid approach two years ago, what have they done to support development of high capacity underground conductors?

2.          Gas Insulated Lines GIL: I have spoken extensively to Herman Koch of Siemens & Mel Hopkins of AZZ Technology about HVDC GIL (which does not exist today); particle drift and the difficulty of particle capture are two well known un-solved problems for HVDC GIL; another is that this would imply a huge increase in worldwide SF6 usage; and the other problem: an 800kV GIL line will be ~1.5 meters in diameter. This technology is not proven, creates direct climate risks because of possible SF6 release, and would be difficult to install because of its diameter.

3.      Polymer Insulated Lines: Cables are examples of polymer-insulated lines, but because they must be flexible (to wrap on a reel), maximum transfer capacity for land cables is around 200 MW, and for sea cables ~2.5 GW (the difference is due to the much larger reels used for sea cables). Elpipes are my version of a polymer insulated line. Elpipes have the distinct advantages of being modular, repairable, and even upgradable. Elpipes can also be operated so that every module is inspected & repaired or upgraded every five years; this routine maintenance capability is a unique feature of elpipes compared to any other underground or overhead transmission option.

Both superconducting lines and GIL got DOE support in the past as transmission alternatives. Both are dead ends. Elpipes have gotten zero DOE support, yet they are the only viable power line design capable of carrying 30 GW while being passively cooled. I note that I applied (concept papers) twice for ARPA-E funding on elpipes; my co-applicants included Alcoa, Professor Marcus Zahn from MIT, and Isidor Sauers from ORNL among others. Why was I not encouraged after my concept papers were received by ARPA-E? To a very important degree, I think it is because it looked not very sexy & more like mundane high voltage engineering to the reviewers; nothing really new and interesting. I counter that some of the most valuable inventions are precisely this type: combinations of known technology. And this is not going to be funded by industry (unless changed FERC rules make it possible for transmission developers to do an end run around the dysfunctional state regulatory process by placing HVDC inside pipelines; THAT could encourage both elpipes and other approaches).

What is the alternative vision DOE has been supporting? Is the plan to shove a whole lot of overhead 800kV HVDC lines down the public’s throat? We NEED a way to build the supergrid based on underground conductors, and as of today, my elpipes are the best solution, but they need R&D funding to get there.

We are in desperate need of American innovation to counter the virtual ownership of HVDC technology by European and Japanese companies. I am aware of three great American Innovations that could put us back in the lead on HVDC technology. The first is cold cathode vacuum tubes, the invention of Curtis Birnbach. Curtis told me he refused to talk to Steven Chu; if that is true, congratulations to DOE for recognizing the importance of cold cathode vacuum tubes, and I'm sorry that Curtis has his own plan that does not involve DOE. 

(Curtis once threatened to sue me for mentioning his cold cathode vacuum tube patents in one of my blog posts. He is really committed to staying away from VC or Government funding.)

Now here is the crux issue I want to convey: DOE recognized the importance of the cold cathode vacuum tube because it involves new material science, about which DOE has an institutional excitement. Similarly both Type 1 and Type 2 superconducting cables have gotten a lot of support because of the high tech materials & processing angle. The shadow side of this "new materials" enthusiasm at DOE is that important innovations that do NOT require new materials are neglected. My invention elpipes is just such an innovation, and it addresses an immensely important problem (how can we build an underground supergrid?).

No comments:

Post a Comment