Solutions coming to the problems of power lines

We're one miracle away, says Prof. Matteo Pasquali, from room temperature superconductors.

A new report is out saying that wind power can be made reliable if we just have more power lines.

Wind is variable, the Enernex report says, but spread that variability across a wide enough area -- add enough turbines in enough places -- and it tends to even out.

But here's the problem. (The illustration is from the report.) We don't have one electrical grid. We have a bunch of small, regional grids. Some are connected, some aren't. (If Texas wants to secede, it seems most of it can.)

Another word for a problem is an opportunity. The report suggests we build a bunch of new power lines to even out the load. Do this, the report adds, and wind could provide as much as 30% of our electricity in 15 years.

That's what the smart grid hype is all about. Get the power from some variable source and deliver it to some variable demand.

Trouble is new power lines are about as popular right now as Democrats. (Which is to say not very.) Conservation reins-in short-term demand and makes it even harder to run new lines.

One solution is in the lab. Carbon nanotubes. Cal Tech researchers say DNA origami templates will help nanotubes self-assemble in any two-dimension geometry. The DNA acts as a mold and the nanotubes fit right in.

At Rice University (where we still call them Buckytubes, after R. Buckminster Fuller, who spoke there when I was an undergraduate) tubes are dissolved in chlorosulphonic acid and can then be assembled into fibers hundreds of meters long. A start, but it still has to be proven and scaled-up.

We're one miracle away, says Prof. Matteo Pasquali, from room temperature superconductors.

What happens after we get that miracle? Well, carbon power lines are lossless, that is, they don't drop any of your juice on the way from the plant. Current systems lose, on average, 7.2% of their power, achieved by stepping-up the voltage very, very high -- one reason you don't want to live near a high voltage line.

Of course what happens when you have lossless transmission of power? There's less reason to build new power lines. Or new generating capacity.

But this is the way we reach a future of renewables. Find ways to increase efficiency while keeping prices high enough to encourage supply.

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