From rising fuel prices to urban blackouts, evidence of the world’s hunger for energy becomes more apparent every day. Within the next half century, global demand for energy is likely to double, raising critical questions about how the world can meet its power needs and how to balance the concerns of economists and environmentalists.
One potential solution-an enormous superconducting electricity pipeline, or “SuperGrid”-is moving closer to reality. The SuperGrid was first proposed by Chauncey Starr of the Electric Power Research Institute in 2001. Starr’s proposal led to the formation of the National Energy Supergrid Workshop, which brought together more than 50 experts from the energy industry, government, and academia. In March 2005, the workshop issued its final report.
The SuperGrid might “meet the nation’s growing energy demands well into the twenty-first century, while reducing consumption of fossil fuels,” says Thomas Overbye, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois and the organizer of the workshop.
The proposed grid would connect power plants from across the United States in a single network that would transfer power from one side of the nation to the other in the form of pure electricity. This is very different from the current system, where fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas are sent across the United States on trucks or trains and through pipelines to be converted into electricity mostly for local use. In the proposed SuperGrid, electricity, rather than fossil fuels, would dash across the country through super-conducting cables. This would mean fewer blackouts in big cities since utility companies would have more electricity on hand to address critical power shortages. It would also help the United States to wean itself off fossil fuels by enabling the economical transmission of electricity from other sources.
The primary power source for the grid would be a constellation of nuclear plants buried deep underground. These plants, in addition to supplying electricity to consumers, would also power other plants to produce liquid hydrogen, which would serve a number of purposes. It would produce electricity and be injected back into the grid to serve as a coolant for the superconducting cables as well as for potential use in fuel-cell vehicles. It could also be stored for several days.
In the present U.S. system, variations in the oil supply, compounded by rapid changes in demand, cause fuel prices to bob up and down like a rowboat in a hurricane. If the United States were able to keep an active reserve of liquid hydrogen, even for a short period, it would stabilize these rough waters and lower energy costs. That in turn would stimulate growth across the entire U.S. economy.
Another benefit of such a shortterm reserve, supporters assert, is that it would allow consumers to make greater use of solar and windpower technologies. Solar and wind are not only the cleanest but also among the least-expensive forms of energy. A hydrogen energy reserve would provide an environmentally friendly backup for solar or wind generators on days when the breeze was light or the sky was overcast.
“The magic words are superconductivity, energy storage, hydrogen, no greenhouse gases, and continental reliability,” says Starr.
One of the most startling aspects of the proposal is that no major scientific breakthroughs are required for its implementation. Potential developers, however, would still face considerable challenges. Construction of the SuperGrid would involve the digging of 4,000 miles of subterranean tunnel and an investment of approximately $1 trillion, or $10 billion per year for the next 50 to 100 years.
According to Starr, the potential benefits may far outweigh the costs. “Our future energy sources will be a mix of old and new options. The SuperGrid may be a stimulant for such new options.” -Patrick Tucker
Source: The National Energy Supergrid Workshop Report, available from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, 1406 West Green Street, Urbana, Illinois 61801. Telephone 217-333-2300. Web site www.supergrid.ece.uiuc.edu .
Originally published, THE FUTURIST, September-October 2005