High-Voltage DC Breakthrough Could Boost Renewable Energy

An advance in grid technology could give Thomas Edison's favored mode of electricity delivery, DC, a chance to ramp up clean power today.

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High-voltage DC transmission lines carry electricity from China's massive Three Gorges dam, the largest power plant in the world. Advocates of HVDC think it has an even greater role to play in bringing renewable energy to the grid.

Thomas Edison championed direct current, or DC, as a better mode for delivering electricity than alternating current, or AC. But the inventor of the light bulb lost the War of the Currents. Despite Edison's sometimes flamboyant efforts—at one point he electrocuted a Coney Island zoo elephant in an attempt to show the technology's hazards—AC is the primary way that electricity flows from power plants to homes and businesses everywhere. (Related Quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity")

But now, more than a century after Edison's misguided stunt, DC may be getting a measure of vindication.

An updated, high-voltage version of DC, called HVDC, is being touted as the transmission method of the future because of its ability to transmit current over very long distances with fewer losses than AC. And that trend may be accelerated by a new device called a hybrid HVDC breaker, which may make it possible to use DC on large power grids without the fear of catastrophic breakdown that stymied the technology in the past. (See related photos: "World's Worst Power Outages.")

Swiss-based power technology and automation giant ABB, which developed the breaker, says it may also prove critical to the 21st century's transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, by tapping the full potential of massive wind farms and solar generating stations to provide electricity to distant cities.

So far, the device has been tested only in laboratories, but ABB's chief executive, Joe Hogan, touts the hybrid HVDC breaker as "a new chapter in...

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