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2, JUNE 2005
Applications of High Temperature Superconductors
to Direct Current Electric Power
Transmission and Distribution
Benjamin Wade McConnell
AbstractFor several reasons, the application of superconduc-
tors to both the transmission and distribution of electric power
is a desire that is best accomplished by using direct current. The
inherent low loss, high current capability of dc superconducting
cables allows the replacement of ultra-high voltage apparatus and
the associated high cost and inversion-rectication difculties with
a compact potentially lower cost, low prole, high current, cable
system. This paper discusses the history of dc transmission and
distribution applications and the reasons that high temperature
superconductors, modern cryogenic systems, and cryogenic power
electronics are the potential enabling technologies. The economic
and performance enhancements that follow from the integration
of these high current, superconducting dc systems into the electric
grid are presented together with the expected potential operational
benets. Possible cable and rectier-inverter congurations are
summarized along with the technical and economic challenges
that must be overcome to achieve a signicant penetration of dc
cable technology on both the transmission and distribution grids.
Finally, the steps needed to achieve large-scale applications of
high-current dc transmission and dc distribution in the future
electric grid are summarized.
Index TermsBenets, dc power transmission, economics, high
temperature superconductors, research goals.
INCE the early days of electric power, the question of
which is better for power transmission and distribu-
tionac or dc has been debated. Indeed, the classic arguments
between Edison (dc) and Westinghouse (ac) make very inter-
esting reading material.
There are several excellent discussions of the history of High
Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) development available in the
open literature [1][4]. The key points of these reviews are sum-
marized here for the readers convenience and for later reference
in this paper.
As pointed out in [2], the technical issues are really a
question of system architecture and the distances involved.
Since the long distance transmission of electricity requires
high voltage to be economically effective, transformers must
be used to step up the generated voltage, which requires an
alternating current. Hence, in the initial development of the
power transmission grid ac was the only effective choice.
Manuscript received October 5, 2004. This work was supported in part by the
DOE Ofce of Electric Transmission and Distribution.
The author is with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN 37831
USA (e-mail: mcconnellbw@ornl.gov).
Digital Object Identier 10.1109/TASC.2005.849479
Fig. 1. Relative cost for HVDC vs. AC. Note the breakeven point is
500700 km in most overhead applications.
Fortunately, technology does not stand still and the applica-
tion of dc technology to transmission of power over long dis-
tance is nowroutine. The key is to rectify ac after the voltage has
been raised to a level that would be economic for long distance
transmission. The process is then reversed to invert the dc back
to ac before transformation at the receiving end. The equipment
to do this is rather expensive and requires a signicant land area.
Fortunately the dc transmission lines are smaller and simpler to
build and require less right-of-way (ROW). Thus, over sufcient
distance the converter station costs and losses are offset by the
lower cost and more efcient dc line with a breakeven point of
around 500700 km. Aclassic illustration of the relative tradeoff
is shown in Fig. 1.
Careful examination of these relative costs suggests that the
key savings for HVDC need not come from signicant loss re-
duction but fromreduced ROWand line capital cost. This means
that the signicant reduction in ROW cost that would come
with the small footprint of a high temperature superconducting
(HTS) dc cable and the potentially lower losses may well make
the HTS dc application cost effective at shorter distances for the
same capacity. Also any given ac transmission voltage is limited
by the effects of line impedance; hence, very long transmissions
are only possible with HVDC or potentially HTS based dc.
The key historical events in the development of HVDC tech-
nology are summarized in [1] and are:
Major Milestones in HVDC technology development
Hewitts mercury-vapor rectier (1901)
Experiments with thyratrons (America) and mercury arc
valves (Europe) (pre-1940)
1051-8223/$20.00 2005 IEEE
First commercial HVDC transmission, (Gotland 1,
First solid-state semiconductor valves (1970),
First microcomputer based control equipment for HVDC
600 kV DC transmission voltage (Itaip,
First active DC lters for outstanding ltering perfor-
mance (1994)
First Capacitor Commutated Converter (CCC)
(Argentina-Brazil inter-tie1998)
First transmission level Voltage Source Converter
(Gotland, Sweden1999).
Cables are a natural application for dc transmission. Since
cable systems have a large amount of stray capacitance, it is not
possible without extensive inductive compensation to transmit
over long distances using ac in a cable system. Hence dc ca-
bles are the dominant form used for underwater transmission.
Because of the need for a cryostat to contain the conductors,
all applications of superconductors to the transmission of elec-
tric energy require the use of a cable system. Thus, it is imper-
ative that the superconducting system be dc for any long dis-
tance ( 40 km) transmission of power using superconducting
Because cable systems were limited to lower voltage levels,
earlier applications for long distance transfer of power by
HVDC has been accomplished by overhead lines The cost
and size of converter stations have limited the applications to
point-to-point transfers. Hence dc transmission has made sense
for those applications that have a large amount of generation
capacity in one place and a demand some distance away. In
addition, systems with different peaking and demand levels
such as the Pacic Intertie can use HVDC very effectively.
In general, a HVDC link will coexist with an ac system and
because of its operating characteristics and inherent greater
stability serves to stabilize the ac systems operation. As dis-
cussed below, development of Pulse Width Modulated Voltage
Source Converters (VSC) has resulted in applications such as
HVDC Light (up to 150 kV) by ABB. This has relaxed the
capacity, voltage, and point-to-point restrictions making for a
more favorable application situation for HTS dc.
To summarize the major advantages of HVDC transmission
[1] are the following:
No transmitted distance limitboth OH lines and cables,
Very fast power ow controlstability improvements,
Bi-directional power ow (very quickly changeable),
HVDC links tolerate higher fault currents,
Less short-circuit powerno breaker change required
More power for a given size of conductor
HVDC uses smaller ROW for equal transmitted power
Lower environmental impact with HVDC
Active and reactive power independently controlled with
Voltage Source Converter (VSC) technology and no extra
compensating equipment,
VSC technology interfaces easily with alternative energy
More than 30 years of operation support the conclusion
that HVDC has high availability and reliability.
Since superconductivity and dc are natural partners, the need
to cool the superconductor and limit the entry of environmental
heat loads dictates the need for a cable system inside a cryostat.
In addition, because cables are capacitive, the systems must be
dc for any signicant transmission distance. It should be noted
that the proposed Very Low Impedance (VLI) cable designs
might alleviate this to some degree under favorable conditions.
However, while ac losses are low (on the order of 1 W/m/phase)
for projected ac cable designs, the dc cable has essentially no ac
losses. This would appear to make the dc cable losses about 25%
of ac system losses. These losses result for heat leakage into the
cryostat and associated cooling load. Since there are effectively
no resistive losses, the dc cable can be operated at higher current
than present dc cables, which opens the possibility of a nomi-
nally low-medium voltage, high current dc cable system. The
design and cost effectiveness of such systems are the subjects
of the balance of this paper.
A dc transmission system consists of three major compo-
nents: the converter stations, the power transmission media, and
the grounding electrodes, which are the same in both the con-
ventional vs. superconducting system.
A. Converter Stations
Since converter station costs are the major component in dc
transmission system costs, the improvement of converter sta-
tions continues to receive signicant attention. The technology
has beneted greatly from the improvements in modern power
electronics and is discussed extensively in the literature [5],
[6]. There are two major concepts one based upon the classic
thyristor and the other based upon voltage source converter
The switching components (valves) in the converter station
consist of individual power electronic components arranged
in series-parallel arrays to meet station voltage-current speci-
cations [4]. Conservative safety in design leads to additional
power electronic components in the valves to accommodate
the high voltage. As a result, lower voltage leads to a smaller
number of components in the converter stations switching
circuits. Hence, the use of higher current and a supercon-
ducting transmission media has the potential to reduce the
converter station costs. How much of a reduction is unknown
but valves in a converter represent 20% of the total station cost
and the converter transformers and ac lters represent 16%
and 10% respectively [1]. If the power electronics part count
can be reduced by 50% through lower voltage and possible
cryocooling of the components (higher current capacity) and if
lower voltage operation reduces transformer and lter costs by
25%, then reduction in converter station costs of about 1525%
could be expected from lower voltage designs. A conventional
VSC based converter station costs 160170 $/kVA [1]. In
the evaluations presented below, we consider the cases of no
reduction ($165/kVA) and a reduced cost of 125 $/kVA. The
cost of thyristor based HVDC inverters for overhead (OH)
transmission is taken to be $175/kVA.
Fig. 2. Conceptual layout of a concentric superconducting dc cable showing
relative dimensions, the outer cryostat wall and the annuli between the LN and
MLI are not shown. (Overall diameter is 2025 cm).
B. Conductor, Cable and Cryogenic System
Conventional cable systems installed today are either copper
or aluminum. The insulation systemis low-pressure oil or cross-
linked polyethylene. Cable sizing is established by voltage/cur-
rent requirements and the voltage/thermal stress on the insu-
lation. In conventional cable, the cost of the cable system is
about $2025/kA-m. For overhead (OH) lines, the conductor
is aluminum with steel reinforcement (ACSR). The value rel-
ative cost is about $15/kA-m including towers and insulation.
OH lines also have thermal limits that are applicable to dc sys-
tems but in general, ac applications are limited by stability con-
siderations to a value well below this thermal limit. Nominal
full load operating currents of 1 kA are typical. A resistance of
0.010.02 ohm/km at operating temperature is representative.
A bi-polar, superconducting dc cable system could consist
of two concentric layers of spiral wound tapes separated by an
insulation system. The usual design would use sub-cooled liquid
nitrogen at a nominal 66 K, owing in the central annulus and
returning in an outer annulus. The system would be contained
in a vacuum cryostat for thermal insulation (Fig. 2).
In principle, such a system could easily be designed to carry
1050 kA; however, in practice, a lower base operating current
and higher operating voltage may be dictated by the fact that
electrical insulation is effectively much less expensive than su-
perconducting materials (Fig. 3). The optimal operating voltage
will depend upon the inverter and insulations systems cost but
operating voltages of at least 100 kV per pole should be consid-
ered for long distance. This graph also indicates the high xed
cost required which results in the need for high capacity ratings
if HTS transmission lines are to be economically competitive.
In the discussions below, the basic tape is priced at $10/kA-m
and limited to a peak operating current of 80%of the tape critical
current. This constraint and the winding conguration lead to
Fig. 3. HTS line costs for 1 GVA HTS dc transmission system in 1000$/km.
Fixed cost are cryostat, cryocooler, and right-of-way, which are only
minimally impacted by voltage level. Note that the operating current in kA is
1000/(2 x kV/pole and the cryostat/cable contains two concentric conductors.
Fig. 4. Delivery cost per MWh at distance x km for competing transmission
technology. As expected OH ac technology continues to be more cost effective
at short distance on simple delivery cost basis.
a cable cost of a nominal $15/kA-m. For calculation purposes,
a cryostat cost of $200/m is used with a heat leak 1 W/m to
the cold region. The cryogenic system that removes this heat is
assumed to require 12 at a cost of .
The costs to deliver a megawatt-hour of energy are presented
in Fig. 4. The analysis assumes a merchant line application
(80% load factor, energy cost at selling price) and uses guide-
lines for economic evaluations ($0.075/kWh, 7.5% interest, 30
year life,) consistent with the annual EIA evaluation [7]. The
nonenergy savings benets of dc are not considered in this anal-
ysis. Thus, a lower breakeven distance is entirely possible. The
analysis in Fig. 4 is for the general long distance transfer case.
The HTS 2 kA dc case assumes lower voltage (100 kV/pole,
lower cost cryocooler $2500 , and the lower converter
cost. HVDC is at 380 kV/pole; ac is dual line 375 kV / phase.
The advantages of high current HTS dc applications may be
seen if lower inverter ($125/kVA) and lower cryocooler costs
Fig. 5. Lower high current inverter cost may lead to HTS dc applications at
short distances.
are applied. The case for a 100 MVAdc applica-
tion is displayed in Fig. 5. The conventional HVDC Light cases
are for 50 and 100 kV/pole. Ultimately the lower line costs for
conventional conductor overcomes both inverter and loss cost
advantages of the HTS dc line. For long distance applications,
higher voltages reduce the line capital cost for both the con-
ventional and HTS cases but costs of the conventional resistive
losses eventually exceed cryogenic costs and lead to favorable
economics for the HTS case.
The results presented here are more optimistic than either
those obtained by Politano [8] or Schoenung [9]. This is driven
by the deviation fromclassical utility analysis used in this paper;
i.e., the high value of energy losses (at selling price rather than
production cost) and higher loading in a merchant line based
evaluation (at 80% rather than the traditional loading of around
The analysis in this paper demonstrates that dc transmission
and distribution technology may signicantly benet from the
application of HTS materials. However, conrmation of these
results awaits the nal development of the second generation
YBCO conductor that achieve the goals of $10/kA-m on
45 mm tape with a copper stabilizer. In addition, evaluations
such as those conducted in this analysis also identify the need
for additional research in the supporting technology required
for the ultimate successful implementation of HTS technology
to dc transmission and distribution; viz.,
Demonstration of possible cost reductions in inverters de-
signed for high current and medium voltage (50100 kV)
Reduced capital cost of cryocoolers,
Reduction in cryostat costs,
Demonstration of required transient and static dielectric
Verication of the reduced right-of-way benets,
Verication that ac losses from ripple and load changing
are negligible or manageable,
Establishing nonenergy related benets that may be very
site and application dependent.
The author would like to thank his colleagues at Oak Ridge
National Laboratory and other DOE laboratories for many
stimulating discussions on this topic. The author extends spe-
cial thanks to Dr. M. Gouge and Dr. J. Demko of ORNL and
Dr. P. Chowdhuri of the Tennessee Technological University.
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