Giant Grid Plan Could Power Nation

The cost, naturally, would be staggering, possibly in the $1 trillion range, but it would be spread over decades and is probably not much more ambitious than the construction of the interstate highway system, according to participants in the November meeting. The game plan is to begin small, most likely with a demonstration project at one of the national energy labs.

Paul Grant, who pioneered research in superconductors at IBM, is now with the Electric Power Research Institute and one of the primary promoters of the SuperGrid concept. Grant says he hopes one of the labs will do a demonstration project fairly soon to show that significant amounts of electrical energy can be transmitted through a superconductor over a distance of at least a few hundred feet.

The purpose of that project, he says, is to "find any land mines" that engineers may have missed in their analysis of the proposal.

If there are no show stoppers there, the next project would be a working superconductor that would smooth the flow of electricity through one of the "transmission grid bottlenecks" identified recently by the Department of Energy.

There's been no commitment on that yet from the department, but Grant is optimistic.

"There's a lot of buzz about this in the DOE and the national labs," he says. "I'm encouraged."

Growing Need

It's important go get going soon, according to the University of Illinois' Overbye, because it will take decades to complete such an ambitious project.

"Global oil production is going to peak, when nobody knows for sure, but not too far in the distant future," Overbye says.

There are a lot of technological hurdles that still have to be leaped, he says, and some of the decisions down the road won't be easy. The energy future as seen by Starr and Grant is powered largely by nuclear plants, and there is much public opposition to the use of that resource because of lingering questions about safety and what to do with radioactive waste that must be isolated for thousands of years.

Others are concerned about the safety of hydrogen, which is also used as rocket fuel.

But the problem, Overbye says, is there aren't many alternatives. Renewable energy sources, like windmills, appeal to many, but in most cases they require a lot of land.

"To replace one large power plant it might take 40 square miles of wind farm," he says. Still, there are lots of areas across the Great Plains "where you could put windmills on the land and still farm it, or still graze your cattle," he adds.

But it won't do any good to generate all that power unless you have some way to get it to the urban centers where the demand is greatest, Overbye says. And for that you need superconductors. And the best way to cool them is with liquid hydrogen.

Starr's vision — and at this point it's still only a vision — would deliver both.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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