Supercharging the grid

Supercharging the grid

Source:  The Economist, 9/4/2003

One of the bright spots on America's creaky old power grid is an experimental section in upstate New York, where some superconducting cables are about to be tested commercially

Whatever the lessons eventually drawn from the hugh power failure - the worst in American history - that cascaded across the northeastern region of the United States and Canada on August 14th, two things have become clear.  The first is that managing the supply of and demand for electricity on a modern distribution grid - with thousands of generating stations being cranked up and wound down, and millions of independent users flipping equipment on and off - is the most daunting balancing act in the whole of engineering.  Let demand momentarily outstrip supply by the tiniest fraction and generators quickly become overloaded, circuit-breakers trip and the lights go out.

The second thing to become clear is that while deregulation has increased competition and lowered prices for consumers, it has slowed the pace of modernisation of the grid.  In particular, it has failed to offer local power generators a big enough carrot (or threaten them with a big enough stick) to upgrade their transmission links and make all the software used for balancing local loads work harmoniously together.

The one bright spot is in Albany, New York, where an experiment is under way to prove that, after years of frustrating disappointment, superconducting power transmission can be made to work commercially.


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