If the United States had been able to do decades ago what a few experts are proposing that we start doing now, nobody would care much about the oil in the Middle East or beneath the Arctic plains.
We wouldn't need it.
Our economy would be based on hydrogen and electricity, delivered in prodigious quantities to our urban centers through a vast underground network of cables and pipes. Of course, that wasn't possible even a few years ago, but recent breakthroughs in science and technology have convinced a number of key players that there is no reason why it couldn't be done in the years ahead.
They are proposing something they call a "SuperGrid," which would carry hydrogen and electricity from distant points to major population centers and shift this country away from its dependence on petroleum.
The transcontinental SuperGrid was first proposed a couple of years ago by Chauncey Starr, founder and president emeritus of the Electric Power Research Institute. The proposal led to a seminal conference in Palo Alto, Calif., last November that brought together a number of experts from various fields to see if they could find any reason why Starr's bold concept wouldn't work.
"We didn't find any," says Thomas Overbye, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, an expert on the transmission of electricity over power grids and organizer of the workshop. "We didn't find any show stoppers."
Presentations at the workshop described tunneling techniques that would enable the placement of large cables and pipes and possibly even power plants beneath the ground, creating an invisible power grid that would serve the country's energy needs for many decades.
The beauty of Starr's vision is it represents a synergy of two energy sources, electricity and hydrogen, that will become even more critical in the years ahead. If hydrogen is ever to become a viable energy source, we will need far more capacity to generate electricity, because it takes electricity in enormous quantities to extract hydrogen from water. And if electricity is to be delivered to our cities in the quantities that will be needed in the future, we need some way to transmit far larger amounts than is currently possible.
To do that, we will need to resort to superconducting cables, which can transfer a huge amount of energy in a relatively small wire. But superconducting cables have to be super-cooled down to near absolute zero, and that's where the hydrogen comes into play. Hydrogen gas turns into a liquid at around 20 degrees above absolute zero, and it could be used to cool the superconducting cable.
So here is the energy future as seen by visionaries like Starr:
Huge generating facilities, such as hundreds of square miles of windmills, or nuclear power plants, or coal, or some other form of renewable fuel, would generate electricity in remote areas. That electricity would be fed into a superconducting cable housed in a pipe with liquid hydrogen. The two would flow into our urban areas, where the electricity would power our homes and factories, and the hydrogen would be used to power fuel cells that would run everything from our laptops to our vehicles.
So we would get two energy sources for the price of one, and each would complement the other.