Power play: ABB engineers test out high-voltage direct-current concepts at this test facility.


ABB Advance Makes Renewable-Energy Supergrids Practical

A high-power circuit breaker makes it possible to create highly efficient DC power grids.

November 12, 2012

ABB, the large power and automation company, has developed technology that could provide an efficient way to transmit power from widely distributed solar panels, wind turbines, and other sources of renewable energy. The new technology is a fast and efficient circuit breaker for high-voltage direct-current (DC) power lines, a device that has eluded technologists for 100 years. The breaker makes it possible to join high-voltage DC transmission lines to form a resilient power grid.

If renewable energy is ever to account for a large part of the total energy supply, countries will need to install new, large-scale transmission grids, both to get power to cities from remote areas such as deserts that often have the best renewable resources, and to combine power from widely distributed wind turbines and solar panels, which can help average out fluctuations in their output. In Europe, there’s been talk for years of a supergrid that would pull together power from hydroelectric dams in Scandinavia with wind farms in Germany and large solar farms in Spain and even North Africa (see “A Supergrid for Europe”).

But such a supergrid has faced serious technical hurdles. The transmission lines that make up conventional power grids use alternating current (AC), which loses large amounts of power over long distances unless complicated and expensive measures are taken. DC is more efficient over long distances, and it offers the additional benefit of working well underground and underwater, reducing or eliminating the need for the unsightly transmission towers that can make it difficult to site new transmission lines.

DC lines have long been used to transmit power across the North Sea, and from large hydroelectric dams to cities. But until ABB’s advance, it wasn’t safe to connect DC lines into a large-scale grid.

Read more: High-Voltage DC Breakers Could Enable a Renewable Energy Supergrid | MIT Technology Review.

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