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California

Recharging the Grid

After the summer blackout, interest is surging in tech companies' innovations

October 04, 2003|Nancy Rivera Brooks | Times Staff Writer

In a small Orange County warehouse, a machine fashions fibers of carbon and glass into a composite material that someday may help prevent electrical blackouts.

Composites -- used in high-tech bicycle frames and tennis rackets -- also can be formed into power lines that don't stretch and sag like conventional wires. Drooping wires have been known to hit trees or other objects, triggering electrical outages.

The company behind the technology, Irvine-based Composite Technology Corp., is a small start-up whose shares were trading at about 50 cents on the morning of Aug. 14, the day of the big Northeast power outage. In short order, Composite Technology's stock price leaped to nearly $3 a share before settling in the $2 neighborhood.

As the blackout showed, the nation's power grid is stressed out. But science and companies like Composite Technology are poised to come to the rescue.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Electricity chart -- A chart in Saturday's Business section depicting retail sales of electricity from 1975 to 2000 should have stated sales totals in millions of kilowatt-hours. The chart incorrectly listed the sales in billions of kilowatt-hours.

The federal government, for instance, is helping fund research into replacing power lines with supercooled cables that can carry up to five times the electricity. And some scientists are thinking even further ahead -- ditching power lines altogether and zapping energy to homes and businesses by microwave or laser.

Research into these technologies has been proceeding for decades. But the Northeast blackout, which hurled 50 million people into darkness, has charged up activity after years of declining investment in the grid.

"Ever since Aug. 14, everybody's interest level is much higher than at any time I can remember," said James Daley, who runs a superconductor research program at the Energy Department.

The blackout shined a bright light on weaknesses in the nation's transmission grid, the complex interconnected system made up of more than 150,000 miles of high-voltage wire owned by more than 3,000 utilities.

The grid takes electricity from power plants and, through transformers and substations, moves it to lower-voltage distribution wires that connect to homes and businesses. Much of the equipment is decades old, and the technology has not kept pace with rapidly evolving electricity markets, utility authorities say.

A significant amount of the research in recent years has involved computer systems and devices to better monitor and control power as it flows at the speed of light, and to react to problems in a fraction of a second. Efforts also are underway to ease the strain on the grid by placing power sources closer to customers and by creating intelligent meters, thermostats and appliances that react to electricity prices or emergency instructions.

Another area of concern is the neglected bones of the grid: the inch-thick cables strung from tall metal towers. Building new transmission corridors is enormously expensive and difficult to pull off because of community opposition, so researchers are looking for ways to cram more electricity through existing corridors by creating higher-capacity cables.

Cable design has changed little in the last century. Strands of wire -- once copper but now aluminum -- are wrapped around a steel core. The steel gives the cable strength, but electricity and high temperatures cause it to heat up and stretch, which makes the lines sag.

Composite Technology's chief executive, Benton Wilcoxon, said his company had developed "an elegant solution for the grid": a transmission cable featuring a composite core sheathed in aluminum. And testing of the cable is underway.

Because the composite strand doesn't heat and stretch as steel does, the cable is capable of carrying twice the electricity of a conventional wire, said Steven Nutt, an engineering professor and director of the M.C. Gill Composites Center at USC, which is working with Composite Technology.

Transmission cables made with composites would be particularly useful in congested areas, such as California's Central Valley, where a transmission bottleneck contributed to blackouts during the state's energy crisis, Nutt said.

Other, larger companies involved in grid-bolstering projects, including American Superconductor Corp. of Westborough, Mass., and Intermagnetics General of Latham, N.Y., experienced a similar explosion in investor interest after the blackout.

A different type of composite power line produced by 3M is being tested by the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, as well as utilities in Hawaii, North Dakota and Minnesota. The field tests should be completed next year, and the St. Paul, Minn., company will increase production as demand warrants, a spokeswoman for 3M said.

Although five to 10 years from market use, another research avenue generating considerable interest from the industry and the Energy Department uses superconductor technology for cables, generators and electricity storage systems.

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