Cutting the complexity of overhead superconducting power lines

Cutting the complexity of overhead superconducting power lines

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

US startup Veir is planning an overhead superconducting power lines that can carry up to 400MW with less complex cooling systems.

The Veir overhead power line uses a superconducting cable and a proprietary cooling system that will enable initial transmission capacity up to 400MW at 69kV and, in future versions, up to several gigawatts. The lines are designed to transport five to 10 times the amount of power of conventional transmission lines, using essentially the same footprint and voltage level.

This is key to helping them overcome the regulatory hurdles and community opposition that has made increasing transmission capacity nearly impossible across large swaths of the globe, particularly in the US and Europe, where new power distribution systems play a vital role in the shift to renewable energy and the resilience of the grid.

Veir has built a pipeline of interested customers including utilities, data centre operators, industrial companies, and renewable energy developers. It is aiming to complete its first commercial-scale pilot carrying high power in 2026.

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“We can deploy much higher power levels at much lower voltage, and so we can deploy the same high power but with a footprint and visual impact that is far less intrusive, and therefore can overcome a lot of the public opposition as well as siting and permitting barriers,” says Tim Heidel, CEO and co-founder.

“Building high-power transmission infrastructure can take a decade or more, and there’s been quite a few examples of projects that folks have had to abandon because they realize that there’s just so much opposition, or there’s too much complexity to pull it off cost effectively,” he says. “We can drop down in voltage but carry the same amount of power because we can build systems that operate at much higher current levels, and that’s how our lines are able to melt into the background and avoid the same opposition.”

After leaving MIT in Massachusetts, Heidel worked at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and then at Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) investment firm, where he continued studying transmission.

“Just about every single decarbonization scenario and study that’s been published in the last two decades concludes that to achieve aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reductions, we’re going to have to double or triple the scale of power grids around the world,” Heidel says. “But when we looked at the data on how fast grids were being expanded, the ease with which transmission lines could be built, the cost of building new transmission, just about every indicator was heading in the wrong direction. Transmission was getting more expensive over time and taking longer to build. We desperately need to find a new solution.”

Veir’s transmission lines use high-temperature superconducting tapes and other materials. Some of that progress has been driven by the nuclear fusion industry, which incorporates superconducting materials into some of their nuclear reactor designs.

But the core innovation is the cooling system. Co-founder and advisor Steve Ashworth developed the rough idea for the cooling system more than 15 years ago at Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of a larger Department of Energy-funded research project. When the project was shut down, the idea was largely forgotten.

Previous generations of superconducting cable power lines use complex, closed loop, active nitrogen cooling systems that limit their use to short-distance underground applications. Veir uses a simple, open loop, passive nitrogen cooling system where distributed evaporation delivers 20x the cooling power per kilogram of liquid nitrogen coolant. This decreases the complexity, reduces conductor weight, and lowers the overall cost of superconducting power lines, and offers more capacity than any other advanced conductor.

Heidel says transmission lines designed to carry that much power are typically far bigger than Veir’s design, and other attempts at shrinking the footprint of high-power lines were limited to short distances underground.

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“High power requires high voltage, and high voltage requires tall towers and wide right of ways, and those tall towers and those wide right of ways are deeply unpopular,” Heidel says. “That is a universal truth across just about the entire world.”

Veir’s first alternating current (AC) overhead superconducting cable is capable of transmission capacities up to 400 megawatts and voltages of up to 69 kilovolts, and the company plans to scale to higher voltage and higher-power products in the future, including direct current (DC) lines.

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