Superconducting Wire Powering Up Korean Smart Grid

Could superconducting cable revolutionize the way electric grids operate? American Superconductor (s AMSC) believes so. On Wednesday, it announced the sale of 3 million meters of superconducting wire to Korea’s LS Cable, which will then turn it into high-tech superconducting cable and test the cable in projects including South Korea’s smart grid test bed of Jeju Island.

The island project follows American Superconductor’s deals with LS Cable to wire up a Seoul-area substation with Korean utility Kepco, as well as a project with New York’s Long Island Power Authority and French cable maker Nexans. AMSC’s plans for Jeju Island are new, and represent an interesting application of the technology for high-voltage, direct-current (HVDC) cables.

While traditional alternating current (AC) transmission lines require huge towers and cables, superconducting HVDC lines can carry up to 5 gigawatts of power through a three-foot diameter pipe, all while reducing power losses associated with AC overhead transmission. That could make superconducting HVDC systems cost-competitive with traditional high-voltage AC lines, but capable of being deployed using a lot less space and can also be used in places that big power lines can’t reach, the company claims.

The first test will come on Jeju Island, where LS Cable and Kepco plan to deploy a 1-kilometer HVDC cable system. It will be part of a massive smart grid pilot project involving a South Korean consortium including LG, SK Telecom, KT, KEPCO, GS Caltex, and Hyundai Heavy Industries. The South Korean government plans to invest 37 billion won (about $33.1 million USD) into the project.

American Superconductor won’t start shipping its new order of wire to LS Cable until 2012, and doesn’t expect its HVDC test project at Jeju Island to get underway until 2013. Whether this will lead to broader markets for its high-efficiency, but high-cost superconducting wire remains to be seen. The company is also working on the Tres Amigas project, a proposed three-way HVDC transmission hub in the American Southwest.

American Superconductor points out that its 3 million-meter wire order with LS Cable will end up being turned into only about 10 miles of superconducting cable of all kind. Given that thousands of miles of copper cable are deployed in grids around the world every year, that gives a sense of the market the company is targeting — though only in niche applications right now. Competitors in the superconductor wire business include Sumitomo, but American Superconductor says its “second-generation” Amperium wire costs less, mainly by reducing the amount of expensive silver needed and through cheaper manufacturing processes.

Interestingly, American Superconductor also has its wind power technology in place on Jeju Island. While it’s seeing growth for its superconducting wire business, the company has made most of its money to date by licensing wind turbine designs and selling supporting power electronics and control gear to some of the world’s top wind turbine makers — including Doosan Heavy Industries, which has 3 megawatts of wind turbines installed at the island.

Just how superconducting cable and wind turbines might be combined in the smart grid project isn’t yet clear. American Superconductor does hope to bring a 10-megawatt “SeaTitan” wind turbine design, which includes its Amperium wire as part of the turbine itself, to market through licensing partners in the coming year. It will be competing against a host of companies trying to bring even larger offshore wind turbines to market.

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