Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Great Idea in Power Transmission

I have written several times about how hard it is to build new high voltage power lines in North America, and how big an obstacle this is to renewable power. Yesterday Trans-Elect, a Maryland-based power company, proposed to build a major electrical trunk line off the East Coast. This line should make it feasible to build wind farms in offshore areas and get the power to New York.

The system’s backbone cable, with a capacity of 6,000 megawatts, equal to the output of five large nuclear reactors, would run in shallow trenches on the seabed in federal waters 15 to 20 miles offshore, from northern New Jersey to Norfolk, Va. The notion would be to harvest energy from turbines in an area where the wind is strong but the hulking towers would barely be visible.

Trans-Elect estimated that construction would cost $5 billion, plus financing and permit fees. The $1.8 billion first phase, a 150-mile stretch from northern New Jersey to Rehoboth Beach, Del., could go into service by early 2016, it said. The rest would not be completed until 2021 at the earliest.

It is, in general, much more expensive to bury high voltage lines than to string them through the air, because 40 feet of air is a great insulator and free to boot. It has gotten so difficult to build new aerial lines, though, that the greater ease of building a line where there are no neighbors will make up much of the cost difference, and the ability to pick up power from a potential uranium mine of wind power should make up the rest.

One of the reasons the project is in the news is that Google agreed to buy a 37.5% stake in the venture. Google, like Microsoft and Apple, is sitting on billions of dollars in cash that it doesn't know what to do with. These companies don't see enough investment opportunities in computers or communications, and they are already doing all the research they can imagine. The people who run Google have decided to invest a pile in new clean energy technologies. I suppose they figure that some of these investments are bound to pan out, and even if they don't make money on the whole they will have increased their credibility with the young, environmentally-aware people who are their biggest market. Or maybe they just think that since they are the smartest people in the world they can pick the technologies of the future. Whatever the reason, moving that cash from banks to investments in our power infrastructure will be an economic plus for all of us. I hope this goes forward smoothly.

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