Blog Post

Transmission Link: Using Innovation to Connect Clean Power

tresamigas1Entrepreneurs are using cutting-edge tech and innovative business models to launch startups in energy sectors like solar, biofuels and batteries. So why not bring that entrepreneurial spirit, advanced technology and innovative thinking to one of the biggest hurdles for clean power, transmission lines? A company called Tres Amigas, based in Santa Fe, N.M., is gaining support, including an endorsement from the state’s governor, Bill Richardson, for a proposal to build a transmission link in the city of Clovis to connect the U.S.’s three major grids — those of the east, west and Texas. The link could create a market for utilities and power producers to buy and sell clean power across the three grids and could encourage the installation of a lot more solar and wind projects.

The idea is to build a “SuperStation” — the mother of all substations — that will use superconducting cables from American Superconductor Corp. (s AMSC). The cables can carry 5,000 MW of electricity and are super-chilled to minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, which boosts the carrying capacity and makes them cheaper, notes the Wall Street Journal. The substation itself would convert the alternating current (AC) from the three grids into direct current (DC) and then back to AC in order to move the electricity back out onto the three grids in an efficient and reliable way.

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While the U.S. already has a couple of substations that link two of the nation’s grids via the AC-DC conversion, this would be the first one that would be able to synchronize electricity from all three grids, the company said in a statement. That means the three grids can finally share power, and it will create, what Tres Amigas calls, “a power market hub,” where utilities and power companies across the three grids could buy and sell electricity.

The truly big deal about this project is that it could enable the implementation of a lot more clean power. A producer of solar or wind could sell that power across all three grids.

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The tech might be cutting edge, but the business model is where the innovation is. Envisioned by the founder and CEO, Phil Harris, who was the CEO of PJM Interconnection, Tres Amigas plans to charge a fee for use of the SuperStation. There’s not a lot of outside-the-box business going on in the heavily regulated transmission sector, so it will take a true entrepreneur to put all these pieces together.

A variety of hurdles will make this project very difficult to implement, however. First up, the hurdle that faces all transmission lines: bureaucracy. While the project doesn’t necessarily come under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Resource Commission (because of the unique power environment of Texas), the company still has to file documents with FERC. Then there’s the financing — the Wall Street Journal says the project could cost a whopping $1 billion to build, so the company will need to raise a lot of funds. Never mind other, smaller issues, like NIMBYism, and coordination among what will probably be a lot of partners for the project. Good luck!

9 Responses to “Transmission Link: Using Innovation to Connect Clean Power”

  1. Bob Wallace

    I have the feeling that this is a very tiny company thinking way too big. But not thinking bad.

    As we move to renewables we need to get widely connected. We need a North America version of the European Supergrid, IMO. We need to be able to ship power from where it it currently most available to the parts of the continent where the wind happens to be still and the sky not cloudy.

    What I’d like to see is some major organization take on the task of designing a future grid which could be built in a ‘most currently needed’ fashion.

    (The NIMBY/eminent domain issues could be solved by running transmission lines underground along interstate highway or railroad routes. HVDC, unlike AC transmission, works well underground and installation cost is about the same as overhead installation.)

    Right now we have the Pacific Interie, a HVDC transmission line that connects the Pacific Northwest with Southern California. Expand that, perhaps, with a HVDC line that runs to the wind farms of the “western Mid-west” and later tie it to the HVDC transmission lines that are being run from the Mid-west to eastern cities. Then you’ve got two sides of the triangle with less work than creating an all new system.

    It also looks like we’re building HVDC lines from the Texas wind farms north to the interior cities.

    If New Mexico wants to be a player they might be best off working on a feed east to Texas and west to LA. Sell that valuable peak hour sun.

  2. The beauty of this approach is that the 3 grids retain their independence because they don’t have to synchronize the phase of their AC. You could connect and disconnect at will.

    I do think that there’s a big future in locally sourced and stored electrical energy, such that every home and business could be a generator, a battery storage, and a user of power. The smart grid can coordinate these millions of micro elements by offering spot rates to buy and sell electricity that change with grid loading. I’ve written on this at http://t1rex.blogspot.com/2009/10/every-home-and-business-is-battery.html

  3. Gary Bookman

    The concept is so motivating. I hope that Tres Amigas will be sucessful in that it can accomodate to everyone’s needs, amibitions and goals.

    I wish wholeheartedly wish them with the very best of luck.