Reinventing the architecture of electricity transmission to enable a fully decarbonized grid.
Massive overhead high-voltage transmission lines weave across the United States, taking electricity from sites of power generation (power plants) to sites of power distribution (substations). Electricity is then routed through wires strung atop ubiquitous utility poles or underground, until it reaches its final destination. Unlike the wires connecting your home or business to the grid, transmission lines must handle thousands of kV and are strung between steel or wooden towers that can reach over 100 feet high.
This infrastructure is well established and supremely reliable, but what happens when existing lines run out of transmission capacity? (The U.S. is predicted to triple its transmission capacity needs by 2050 if aggressive, economy-wide clean energy goals are met.) The natural answer to such demand would be to simply build more transmission lines. But permitting the construction of thousands of 100-foot steel towers across the country is nearly impossible because of price, politics, and logistics. Nobody wants a tower in their backyard. And cities and towns have quite literally grown around existing right-of-ways — there’s no room.
VEIR, a startup born from technology conceived of by a National Laboratory researcher, plans to use superconducting tape bundled into a cable and surrounded by a novel cooling system enabling existing transmission infrastructure to transmit 5X more power at the same voltage, alleviating significant electric system pain points like congestion and renewable integration. No new towers required.
This transmission technology also unlocks the potential for renewable sources like solar and wind to power areas hundreds of miles from where the electricity is needed. An ancillary benefit to such efficient transmission is the elimination of fossil-fuel-powered “peaker” plants that kick in to supplement existing power when grid demand surges or “peaks.”
VEIR is helmed by Adam Wallen (CEO) and Tim Heidel (CTO), who both previously worked for Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Wallen is a serial entrepreneur with a background in ceramic sciences and engineering. Heidel earned his doctorate from MIT in electrical engineering and served both as Program Director for ARPA-E (where he managed over 75 ARPA-E funded research projects). He also helped lead the 2011 Future of the Electricity Grid study for the MIT Energy Initiative.
The startup’s technology relies on the evaporative cooling power of liquid nitrogen to cool cables of high-temperature superconducting (HTS) tape. Unlike previous experiments with HTS transmission that relied on buried cables, complex mechanical refrigeration systems, VEIR’s system is mostly passive, relying on the natural properties of nitrogen to transform from liquid to gas. And the active mechanical components of the system have proven reliable in the most demanding industrial applications like chemical refineries and steel mills.
“VEIR’s technology enables increasing the amount of power transmitted in a given right-of-way by a factor of five. This will enable the transmission of more power at lower voltages in smaller right-of-ways, reducing the uncertainty, time, and cost of siting and permitting new transmission corridors.” said VEIR CEO Adam Wallen. “The successful implementation VEIR lines could form the backbone of a HVDC macrogrid, shifting massive amounts of renewable energy across the continent.”
Electricity is the lifeblood of the modern world. Unfaltering access to it will only become more essential as industries push to decarbonize and we continue to electrify previously un-electrified sectors of the economy. The race to build the infrastructure to meet this coming demand is happening now. The International Energy Agency projects that global investments in the transmission system will exceed $1.8 trillion by 2035, $500 billion of which will be in the United States alone.
To fully realize a decarbonized electrified future, we need solutions that increase the capability of established right-of-ways by rethinking the arteries of the system itself — the transmission lines.