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Google, Tres Amigas Aim To Fix America's Electrical Grid With Novel Technologies

First Posted: 05/27/11 05:03 PM ET Updated: 07/27/11 06:12 AM ET

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Anaheim, Calif. -- During the American wind industry's annual convention this week, two of the boldest proposals for the future of renewable industry didn’t involve bigger or better turbines. They're instead focusing on the comparatively unsexy issue of America’s creaking electricity grid. The Internet giant Google and an upstart New Mexico-based company called Tres Amigas want to transform the way power gets from wind farms and solar power arrays to your house.

Both plans rely heavily on unproven technologies: Google and other investors plan to build a 350-mile long undersea cable off the Atlantic coast, while Tres Amigas wants to create a 22-square mile superconductor “Superstation” to synchronize the nation's three major electrical grids.

As the U.S. becomes more and more energy-hungry, the country needs more generating capacity. And with most Americans resistant to new projects anywhere near cities and suburbs, new plants need to be placed far away from population centers to win approval. Google’s backbone could open up hundreds of miles of ocean territory for offshore wind farms, and the Tres Amigas project would open up wind and solar projects in remote parts of New Mexico and Texas.

Both of these projects are taking place within a larger push to improve the American antiquated electrical grid, said Peter Fox-Penner, a principal at The Brattle Group, a consulting firm that worked on the Google-supported project's application to federal regulators.

“All segments of the industry are building more transmission now,” Fox-Penner told HuffPost. “Primarily to integrate renewable into the grid, abut also for reliability and other reasons.”

Google's support for the Atlantic Wind Connection -- a 37.5 percent stake -- could be a good public relations move for a company that relies on energy-sucking data centers to run its core business. According to an estimate in Harper's, just one data center "can be expected to demand about 103 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington." Environmental organization Greenpeace has dinged the company for not relying enough on renewables (while acknowledging that it performed far better than some tech companies, like Apple).

So far Google has invested a total of $400 million in clean energy projects. Google says it is pursuing the projects both because they make good business sense and because they make the company more environmentally responsible.

The Atlantic Wind Connection project is still at an early stage, and no one knows if Google and its co-investors can pull it off. One of the project’s lead developers has said the scheme is "about as risky as you can get." The engineering challenges of laying all the cables and connecting them to both wind farms and the grid on land are daunting -- and Google isn’t even proposing to build any wind farms itself. Offshore wind is still a young segment of the industry, and no project at this scale has yet been completed: Google’s plan would create development opportunities for up to 6,000 megawatts of power when all of Europe, the world leader in offshore wind, only has about half that many megawatts online.

The project got good news last week when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a 12.59 percent profit rate, but other federal and state regulators still need to weigh in. And while Google says the project, which is 22 miles off the coast, is far enough off-shore to ensure that any offshore wind farms that sprout up along the electricity backbone aren’t a visual nuisance, the long saga of the Cape Wind project shows just how tenacious seashore dwellers can be about their ocean views.

Watch Google’s Rick Needham, the company’s green business operations director, explain the Atlantic Wind Connection and Google’s green energy plans.

Building a wind farm on land is less technically challenging than building one far offshore, but it still has to connect into the grid somehow. America's grid is so balkanized that when the wind is blowing hard in Texas and electricity is cheap there, California utilities can't buy the cheap power and pass the savings along to customers.

While grid difficulties are not unique to renewable energy, the sector has the most to gain from improvements because wind and solar depend on the weather and thus need to be able to send their extra energy across large distances as flexibly as possible to balance out supply fluctuations, experts say.

Tres Amigas is trying to connect the western, eastern and Texas power grids -- an idea the federal government proposed but failed to execute in the 1950s -- with a $1 billion plus project that could ultimately send 30 gigawatts zooming across the country.

Because the three grids don't quite operate on the same frequency, Tres Amigas would use novel technology to synchronize the electricity: superconducting high-voltage direct current cables and new computer programs. Power would first need to be converted from AC to DC, then whipped around the superstation on the superconducting cables and finally be converted back to AC to be shipped off to another grid. The company that makes the high-tech cables, American Superconductor, is an important investor in the project, but it has recently weathered fire for management problems.

The market for this plan, though, remains untested. Texas in particular seems reluctant to open up its grid -- and its wind farms -- over fears of utility bill increases. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, moreover, cautioned Tres Amigas last March over the lack of detail in its applications.

The man behind Tres Amigas, however, is optimistic -- CEO Phil Harris plans to break ground this year on the first part of the project, which will transmit a few gigawatts between the three grids. The final superstation plans to be able to transfer around 30 gigawatts.

See Tres Amigas founder and CEO Phil Harris talk about the project.

Even if these splashy projects never get off the ground, the push towards renewable -- now mandated by many state laws -- means the U.S. will likely need many more transmission lines in the future.

“There's the highest activity probably in the history of the country right now,” said Fox-Penner.

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