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Plan connects U.S. grids to transport solar, wind

The Tres Amigas project calls for using high-voltage direct-current superconducting cables to transport renewable energy among the three power grids in U.S.

A proposal to use superconducting cables to transport renewable energy across the United States will be unveiled Tuesday.

The Tres Amigas Project would act as a hub to connect the three major electricity grids in the U.S. and a conduit for solar and wind power, according to a press release. New Mexico governor and former energy secretary Bill Richardson is expected to lay out the details of the plan at a press event in Alburquerque, N.M.

The U.S. has substantial renewable energy potential, such as wind power from the Midwest and solar in the southwest, but the bulk of electricity demand is far away from those resources. To take full advantage of the available renewable energy, more transmission lines need to be built, said Tres Amigas CEO Phil Harris, who used to head PJM Interconnection, the largest grid operator in the U.S.

American Superconductor

The Tres Amigas Project would act as a high-speed control point for the electricity generated by solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal resources. For example, when the wind turbines at night are generating more electricity than can be used in one grid, it could be transferred to another region.

The plan calls for using direct current superconducting cables from American Superconductor to transfer the electricity among the different regional grids--known as the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Texas Interconnection.

The idea of using high-temperature superconducting material in direct-current transmission lines was proposed more than a decade ago as a way to cut down on the loss of electricity that happens with traditional overhead alternating current cables. American Superconductor has used this technology with utilities in a handful of places over short distances.

The Tres Amigas plan calls for building a substation with three high-voltage converters able to connect up to five gigawatts, or 5,000 megawatts, worth of electricity from one grid to the others. Underground superconducting power cables would link the three terminals using direct current, rather than alternating current. Tres Amigas would act a broker, distributing and selling power among the three grids.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Jon Wellinghoff said that it is too early to endorse the project but added that FERC needs "more of these creative proposals to allow for more renewable-energy development." In addition to regulatory approval, the Tres Amigas plan needs financing to get off the ground. According to the Journal, the project could cost around $1 billion.