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Has ABB Solved the 100-Year 'War of the Currents'?

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The Swiss company has thrown down a possible power breakthrough.

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If everything equipment makers said about technological breakthroughs were true, we'd all be living with the Jetsons.

But every once in a while, a pitch grabs an editor's attention. ABB's (NYSE:ABB) claim that it had solved a "100-year-old electrical riddle" is a good example.

The Swiss company says it has developed the "world's first" circuit breaker for high-voltage direct current and that its hybrid HVDC breaker can interrupt power flows "equivalent to the output of a large power station within 5 milliseconds," about 60 to 80 times far faster than the blink of an eye.

Such a breakthrough would allow power to be moved longer distances more efficiently, facilitating the delivery of renewables from remote regions rich in wind and solar resources to distant load centers, e.g., cities, and it could greatly expand the uses of DC transmission lines.

ABB traces the riddle back to the "current wars" between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse that date back to the dawn of the electric power industry. Edison championed DC power, claiming that AC power was too dangerous for consumer use, even staging electrocutions to make his point. But Westinghouse won, and today the world runs on AC power.

Since Edison, DC power has largely been relegated to niche applications, such as underwater connections, that are point-to-point with converters on either end.

But plans to use DC transmission lines are proliferating, driven in large part by the logistics of delivering renewable power. Improvements in breaker technology could facilitate even wider deployment.

ABB spokesman Antonio Ligi compared HVDC lines to a dedicated highway between two cities. But with ABB's hybrid breaker, it is now possible to have exits on the highway, he said. So instead of stringing a DC line from, say, Montana to Minneapolis with one "on" and one "off" ramp, the line could be interrupted several times to allow the power to flow to load centers along the way.

"If ABB is ready, some of our projects could be ripe for the application" of the new breaker technology, Wayne Galli, vice president of transmission and technical services at Clean Line Energy Partners, said.

Clean Line is developing four DC transmission projects that are designed to deliver power from resource areas in the Midwest to load centers to the east or west.

With current technology it is not possible to isolate a fault in a DC line, as can be done with an AC line. A fault in a DC line would require the entire line to shut down. Putting a circuit breaker on a DC line would enable the fault to be isolated.

Galli said that could be very important for Clean Line's projects that originate in regions with "weak grid interactions," that is, regions where transmission lines are few and far between and required voltage support can be tenuous. "We are evaluating it," Galli said, but "we still have to see if the economics work out."
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