Palo Alto, Calif.
The reliability of America`s power grid is increasingly threatened while the technologies needed are delayed in commercial deployment due to a lack of financial incentives and R&D, according to a new EPRI report.
The Electricity Technology Roadmap, to which 150 participants contributed their ideas and insights, finds that escalating demands for electricity coupled with an outdated power delivery grid pose a serious threat to the U.S. economy.
Unless this issue is urgently addressed, America`s electric infrastructure will be seriously challenged to keep up with the demands of the information age, the study finds. Technology advancements are needed to avoid the blackouts that brought New York and Chicago to a standstill this summer-events that many industry observers see as a harbinger of future problems.
Particularly at risk is the nation`s power delivery (transmission and distribution). The potential for large-scale outages and disruption on this vast interconnected grid is considered higher than at anytime since the great Northeast blackout, 35 years ago.
“The 50-year-old grid was simply never designed to handle the volume and frequency of power trades that we`re seeing today,” said Kurt Yeager, president and CEO of EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute). “This trend is only expected to increase as competition becomes more widely adopted.”
The solution lies in creating new technologies and materials that will improve both power capacity and control. Progress is being made on these fronts with the development of silicon-based devices that improve the speed and precision of power switching and control, and with the successful testing of superconducting cables that can handle up to triple the capacity of today`s lines.
“New technology such as power electronics and superconducting cables can help us improve reliability and meet increased demand, especially in crowded downtown areas where there is no room for new cables,” said Yeager. “But an intensified research, development and demonstration effort is needed if we are to bring these technologies to market and continue to satisfy the changing appetites for power quantity and quality in a digital economy. Our goal should be to create the superhighway system for electronic commerce in the 21st century.”
Another demand on power delivery stems from growing dependence on modern electronic end-use devices, many of which are ultra-sensitive to even minor power disruptions. Voltage sags and surges that may not affect a light bulb can cause computers to crash and can bring entire production processes or financial centers to a standstill. These and other power quality disruptions already cost the United States more than $50 billion annually.
Although electricity research and development has made tremendous strides in the past 50 years, there are many more opportunities for electricity-based innovation to serve society, according to the report. Materials research, for example, holds great promise for making solar energy a viable complement to fossil fuels. And, microminiature electronic sensors, coupled with increasingly powerful microprocessor control promise to revolutionize the efficiency of manufacturing and operations. But, funding for energy research has been declining over the past decade, and is now at a 20-year low. (see figure)
According to a July, 1999 study by Princeton University, America spent $12 billion in 1979 on energy R&D investments, only to steadily cut funding over the next two decades to a low of $4.3 billion in 1996, the last year for which figures were available. n