Superconductors Keep Lights On

A Wisconsin utility is the first power company in the country to adoptsuperconductor technology to smooth out the area’s power supply and helpprevent brownouts. The company that makes these super cooledelectromagnets is marketing them as a cheap and green way for utilitycompanies to provide more reliable service. But renewable energyadvocates say it’s just a band-aid that does nothing to reducedependence on fossil fuels. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s GilHalsted reports:


A Wisconsin utility is the first power company in the country to adopt superconductor
technology to smooth out the area’s power supply and help prevent brownouts. The
company that makes these super cooled electromagnets is marketing them as a cheap and
green way for utility company’s to provide more reliable service. But renewable energy
advocates say it’s just a band aid that does nothing to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium Gil Halsted reports.

All of us who use electricity know how irritating
it is to have the power suddenly fail when we’re in the middle of
cooking dinner or trying to
download our e-mail.

Voltage irregularities cause the lights to
flicker and you start wondering when they’re gonna flicker again.

Greg Yurek is the CEO of American superconductor. The
company that installed the new superconducting magnetic storage
units on the northern Wisconsin grid. He says they’re
designed to stabilize the voltage when weather or
squirrels cause voltage irregularities.

“Lightning or sometimes a suicidal squirrel gets
fried across the line. Sometimes gives rise to an instability that
cascades through the system our units solve all those problems
which you can imagine are common to all utilities.”

Those units are housed in six semi truck trailers hooked up to sub
stations on the northern Wisconsin power grid. Inside the trailers are
magnets made of coils of titanium alloy. These
magnets can store up to three million watts of power. Powerful
refrigerators in the trailer are used to cool liquid helium that
circulates around the magnetic coils – keeping them super cooled to
more than 400 degrees below zero. Yurek says at that
temperature the coil becomes a superconductor allowing
power to flow through it with almost zero resistance. So when a
monitoring device detects a voltage sag on the
grid there’s power available to correct it immediately.

“The electricity in that superconducting coil –
there’s no resistance holding it back – when we want to draw
it out – nothing holding it back so we can shoot it out pretty much

Yurek says adding these units to the grid means
consumers get cleaner more stable power coming into their
homes. Researcher George Crabtree from the
Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois agrees.
He’s been working on superconducting technology
for more than a decade. He says the technology
will save consumers both time and money.

“For example computer users or high computer
intensive businesses will experience fewer crashes; crashes are very
expensive in terms of effort and time. And industries where machinery
can be shut down by an interruption
of power will also experience fewer interruptions so they will save
time as well. Nationwide that problem is large. It’s billions
of dollars.”

The conventional fix for the power sag problem is to build new
power lines and bring in more power to re-enforce the grid. but
consumer advocate Steve Hiniker of the Madison,
Wisconsin based citizens utility board says the
superconductor units are a cheaper fix.

“For roughly the same cost of building a new
transmission line you can
install one of these units can mitigate that need
and it’s really the
future of energy we’re not there yet but this is a
part of what we’ll be looking at which will be
something that as we develop a more sustainable
source of energy that’s used closer to the point
of use.”

But the superconductor is anything but sustainable according to solar
energy engineer Chris Laforge. He says the power
needed to keep superconductors super cooled simply creates
more demand for energy.

“The problem with these devices is that they’re loads – they
consume energy.”

Laforge says there are better alternatives. His
company installs wind turbines and photovoltaic panels for
companies looking for ways to cut their energy bills.

“To power these superconducting gizmo’s
we’re going to be burning
coal in North Dakota or Wisconsin and causing lots
of pollution unnecessarily whereas by
introducing a new free fuel source namely photo
voltaic panels and wind turbines – you support the
grid in the same decentralized distributed fashion
and you take advantage of cleaning up our energy
act at the same time.”

Still Greg Yurek of American superconductor
insists that superconductors will catch on in the utility
industry. His company already has half a dozen
orders from power companies. And he predicts
within the next twenty years homeowners will be
buying retail units the size of a typical home air

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Gil Halsted.