Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tres Amigas Project in New Mexico promises more renewable energy through better electrical grid connectivity

A criticism of renewable energy resources like wind or solar power is the places where it's abundant are places with few people, and the places with many people don't have much of either wind or solar power. Thus to utilize wind or solar power means long distance electrical transmission through what's been characterized as an aging and inefficient national power grid. American Superconductor aims to undo this bottleneck with the Tres Amigas project which intends to be a highly efficient interconnection hub for the three main portions of America's power grid.

renewable-power.jpgThe "Saudi Arabia of Wind" is in the U.S. mid-west region, primarily a corridor from North Texas, along the front range of the Rockies, and into Wyoming and Minnesota. Similarly the deserts of the South West are prime places for solar power installations. Lots of wind and sun with few people, meaning that electricity from facilities installed there has to travel a long distance to reach their market. Further for that power to reach the east or west coast requires traversing what are said to be inefficient transfers to the Eastern or Western Interconnect.

tres-amigas.jpgThe design of the Tres Amigas project is a large triangle of underground superconducting cables connecting the three power grids. (get it? three power grids? tres amigas?) Each leg of the triangle can carry 5 gigawatts of electricity and the whole station will be on 22.5 square miles of land near Clovis NM.

A key component of the design is the "Superconductor Electricity Pipelines" product developed by American Superconductor. These pipelines have a copper core in a cryogenic environment maintained by a liquid nitrogen bath. Hence this form of superconductivity is created by supercold temperatures. The cables are buried underground by digging trenches creating an advantage over current long distance transmission using those tall towers which criss-cross the country. Their website is full of pictures of untouched rural landscapes which one supposes would result from widespread use of their electricity pipelines.


They claim the advantages of the "Superconductor Electricity Pipelines" include the following. However the claims are made for 1000 mile long transmission cables, and the Tres Amigas project is only due to cover a 22.5 square mile exchange point. It is not said whether this project includes any truly long distance transmission facilities beyond the exchange point.

  • Higher efficiency (97% rather than 91%) resulting in less transmission loss
  • Smaller land use impact (25 foot right of way versus 600 foot)
  • Good esthetics (buried cables are out of sight)
  • No electromagnetic field
  • Efficiency and CO2 emissions savings (presumably due to higher transmission efficiency)

Tres Amigas LLC claims these advantages:-

  • First system to connect America’s three power grids (Eastern Interconnect, Western Interconnect and Texas Interconnect)
  • Enhances the capacity, reliability and efficiency of America’s power grids
  • Assists the U.S. in achieving its renewable energy targets by carrying gigawatts of “green” power from region to region
  • Creates the nation’s first renewable energy trading hub
  • Utilizes the latest power grid technologies, including DC superconductor power cables, HVDC voltage source converters and energy storage systems

The project seems geared to tapping New Mexico's potential as a leading supplier of renewable energy. That and other state's of the South West have vast potential for producing renewably sourced electricity.

The information from Tres Amigas includes this curious statement: "Creates the nation’s first renewable energy trading hub". This raises echo's of Enron whose primary purpose was to operate an energy trading system.


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