I start with the assertion that the United States can make smart investments that are both green and ultimately profitable for the nation. The single-most effective investment we can make now is to improve the transmission efficiency of electrical power distribution. According to this grid efficiency article the U.S. loses a little under 8% of its energy in transmission and distribution (T&D). An the loss in T&D is trending upwards.
The recent electrical outages due to the ice storm in the North East and comments from Duane regarding my economic stimulus article got me thinking about energy. (During my day job I am an electrical engineer designing CPU’s.) Our productivity on Friday was cut by half or more due to our reliance on systems on the East Coast that were impacted by the power outages. Similarly, years ago, while working for Agilent Technologies our silicon wafer fab was shut down due to a local power outage, ruining millions of dollars of chips. Simply put, I have seen power outages cost a single company millions. Imagine the financial impact on, for example, on all the companies in the North East due to the recent outage.
In a nutshell, a more robust grid is good for business. Substantially upgrading and improving the U.S. grid would make it more robust and more efficient. If I were president-elect Obama, who probably isn’t reading this blog, I would issue the bold statement within my first 100 days:
“I challenge the Congress, free enterprise, and the nation to improve the US power grid efficiency dramatically. The goal I put forth today is to reduce transmission losses from 8% to 5% in the next 7 years. The reduction of wasted power by 3% will result in less power generation by coal plants resulting in fewer emissions of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and mercury and harmful particulates. Further this will reduce CO2 emissions.
Moreover, I challenge the G7, Russia, China, and India to make similar strides in transmission efficiency. For the developing world I’m asking the G7 to contribute $200 million to provide technical assistance and loans to transmission efficiency improvements.”
Greater efficiency means cleaner power. For example, if the power produced by a coal plant loses 8% in transmission, and plant managers wish to supply a Megawatt (MW) to end users, it must supply 8.7% more to deliver that 1 MW. Improving T&D efficiency (T&DE) reduces that excess to 5.26%, resulting in a savings of 3.44%. This means 3.44% less particulates, mercury, and SO2 sent into the air.
In essence, I’m suggesting we do for our power grid what President Eisenhower did for our roads. Eisenhower spearheaded the creation of the U.S. Interstate System… transforming a mishmash of local and state roads by integrating them with a backbone of fast, efficient federal highways. I suggest Obama could integrate our mishmash of regional power tributaries and webs with a truly robust and efficient U.S. power backbone.
I’m suggesting we implement a plan to achieve these goals:
- Upgrade our grid starting with the creation and upgrade of new interstate trunks featuring an increase in underground lines (versus overhead lines which are more vulnerable to weather.)
- Make use, in part, of the railway system, the interstate system, and telecommunication systems to help find lower-impact right-of-way solutions.
- Fund scientific research into power T&D including mechanical, material, civil, computer, and electrical engineering as well as physics. Fund business, political, and legal study into T&D topics.
That is my 2 cents for now. What follows are a few nitty gritty technical details I can’t help but add as footnotes:
Focus should be on high-voltage DC power transmission (>400KV). DC presents several advantages including virtually eliminating 60-Hz phase-matching concerns.
Superconductors may continue to be evaluated as a portion of the program, but emphasis will be on more traditional conductors such as copper (blends, silver-plated) and aluminum which will be at the core of the initial implementation phase.
Power conversion is another key aspect… both AC-to-DC and AC-to-AC stepping.
Finally grid monitoring, load balancing, and other command-and-control function are the third key element. Both advancing the infrastructure with existing technologies as well as researching future hardening, robustness, monitoring, and power-routing technologies are critical.