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NY's LIPA Throws Switch On Nation's 1st Superconducting Cable

Apr 30, 2008 - Dow Jones

With concerns over the decaying energy infrastructure in the U.S. mounting and new renewable-energy capacity coming online in remote locations, a new technology is emerging to relieve stress on the overtaxed grid.

Utilities are beginning to roll out new transmission cables using wires made of superconducting material that can carry 150 times the electricity of traditional copper wires.

Last week the Hauppage, N.Y.-based Long Island Power Authority threw the switch on a half-mile test project that is the first transmission cable system to run in a commercial grid in the U.S.

"The real value of super-conducting cables is that (they have) three to five times the load-carrying capability that a conventional cable would have," said Bruce Germano, vice president of retail services at the Long Island Power Authority. "As load continues to grow, we know we are going to have to do reinforcement and upgrades on the transmission system and the distribution system."

That $58.5 million Long Island project was backed in part by the Department of Energy and used high temperature superconductor wire provided by the Devens, Mass.-based American Superconductor Corp. (AMSC) in a cable system made by Paris-based Nexans SA (4444.FR).

The DOE spent about $27.5 million to get the cable installed as part of its work to modernize the U.S. electric grid, through its Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

In 2006, utilities such as American Electric Power Co. (AEP) and National Grid PLC (NGG) developed projects in Dayton, Ohio, and Albany, N.Y., that test high- temperature superconductor power wires in distribution cables. The Long Island project is the first to use the technology in transmission cables.

The Albany, N.Y., project with National Grid uses superconducting wires made by Tokyo-based Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd. (5802.TO), while the AEP project uses wires from American Superconductor.

The Department of Energy also backed the AEP project with a $5.6 million investment and spent $13.7 million on the National Grid installation.

For DOE, the test deployments of the high-temperature superconducting technology are the culmination of 20 years of research and investment, according to Debbie Haught, the general engineer at DOE in charge of superconducting cable research.

"(The technology) increases the amount of power on the system," said Patricia Hoffman, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability at the DOE. "What it ultimately does is it allows for a smaller right of way, easier permitting, and smaller sub-stations."

The cables are especially important in highly congested areas where there isn't enough space for the larger copper lines, Hoffman said.

These transmission cables, manufactured using American Superconductor's wires, can carry 138 kilovolts, which can supply up to 574 megawatts of power, enough to electrify approximately 300,000 homes, according to American Superconductor's Web site.

Furthermore, there is virtually no line-loss, or loss of power on the superconducting transmission cables, according to a statement from American Superconductor. The company said traditional transmission lines lose 7% to 10% of power, due to the inherent electrical resistance of copper wires.

"This will be a way to move massive amount of power without disturbing the surrounding environment," said Greg Yurek, chief executive officer of American Superconductor. "It's like putting an energy superhighway in the middle of a city."

Although the technology holds tremendous promise, cost is still an issue for American Superconductor. "If the technology goes the way it's designed to go and the manufacturing costs decline, then you get to a point where the technology makes sense to use," said the LIPA's Germano.

American Superconductor is working to address the cost issue, according to company spokesman Jason Fredette. He said the company began manufacturing its second generation of the superconducting wire in late 2007. The bulk of that production is supporting its work with Project Hydra, an energy security project funded jointly by the Department of Homeland Security, Consolidated Edison Inc. (ED), and American Superconductor, Fredette said.

Ultimately, Yurek projects that costs between the superconducting wires used in cables and traditional copper transmission lines will be roughly equivalent. "If you look at installing a cable system using copper wire in the grid, that cable would cost on the order of $13 million per mile and a transmission voltage superconductor would be about the same per mile at $15 million," he said.

What is clear to all parties is that growing demand and an aging infrastructure is creating a need for increased spending.

"We do need a significant investment," said DOE's Hoffman. "The issue is we probably need to invest now rather than waiting to invest, because it's only going to cost more."

-By Jonathan Shieber, Dow Jones Newsletters; 201-938-4305; jonathan.shieber@


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