"Tres Amigas" Superstation Could Connect the 3 US Electrical Grids


A Bigger Market for Renewable Electricity
Currently, the US is sub-divided into three electrical grids (East, West, and Texas). This means that electricity produced in one of the grids cannot be transmitted to the other grids. For example, solar power from Arizona cannot reach Oklahoma, wind power from Texas cannot be used in the East, and so on. But this could change if the "Tres Amigas" project for a superstation connecting the three grids in Clovis, New Mexico, goes ahead. This could be a good thing for renewable energy, thought problems are also on the horizon.
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Why Clovis? Because it is less than 100 miles from electrical substations in the three grids, and would thus be an ideal point to connect them (there are already a few small connections between the Eastern and Western grids, but they aren't designed to let lot of power flow through).

More Clean Energy
This would be good for renewable energy because it would increase the number of potential buyers. For example, if the wind is blowing hard in Texas and there is a surplus of wind power, it could be sold to the Eastern grid at a better price than the local market where supply is temporarily outpacing demand.

Working Around Technical Problems
From the Wall Street Journal:

The proposed substation, functioning like a traffic roundabout, would use superconducting cable from American Superconductor Corp. of Devens, Mass., capable of carrying 5,000 megawatts of electricity -- equivalent to the output of five nuclear-power reactors. Superconducting cable is chilled to minus-300 degrees Fahrenheit, which greatly increases its carrying capacity, and the rights-of-way the cable requires along its path are smaller -- and cheaper.

The Tres Amigas substation would use novel technology to solve a basic problem: that power can't easily flow among the three grids because they aren't synchronized. It would convert the alternating current of each region into a common direct current. Then it would convert specific electrons back into alternating current to match the grid to which the electrons were destined.

I think this connection would be a good thing as long as it is done in such a way that that chances of a blackout of the whole US (instead of just one of the three grids) is minimized as much as possible. Making the grid smarter and better able to handle renewable energy is crucial, but it should also be made very robust and resilient in the face of natural disasters and local failures.

Texas Saying "No"?
But it's not a done deal yet. There's a good chance that Texas will say no, according to our friends at Popular Mechanics. The argument is more or less that Texas likes things the way they are just fine, because having its own grid allows it to be more nimble (which helps it build wind power projects more quickly, among other things) and to avoid having to deal with a lot of red tape.

But even if Texas opts out, connecting the Eastern and Western grids at Clovis might still be a good idea, and if Texas changes its mind later on, it could still get plugged in.

Via Wall Street Journal, WSJ Blogs, Popular Mechanics
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Tags: Alternative Energy | Energy | Energy Efficiency