The Superconducting Revolution: Reshaping the Future of Power Distribution

The Superconducting Revolution: Reshaping the Future of Power Distribution

The material science world was set abuzz this summer with the announcement of a room-temperature superconducting material. Such a material would be the biggest scientific discovery of our generation, resulting in portable MRI scanners, levitating trains and an era of abundant cheap energy facilitated by a low-voltage, lossless DC power system.

The announcement came from Korean researchers who rushed to publish due to internal conflicts (only three people can share a Nobel prize!). Regrettably, replication efforts have so far come up short. Yet, it’s conceivable that this new material, known as LK-99, a 1-D ceramic appearing in several patents, needs some undisclosed adjustments during its production before revealing its capabilities to others. Nonetheless, the discovery of a genuine room-temperature superconductor might just be a matter of time.

Existing superconducting materials have limited practicality for broad application, as they either need to be cooled nearly to absolute zero (-273.15˚C) or subjected to extreme pressure (exceeding one million bars). When they meet these conditions, they can conduct electric current without any resistance.

Superconductor cost savings

Without electrical resistance, power system losses would become insignificant, giving unlimited access to the grid. This is crucial for power system operators, especially given that costs surged from 20 to 50% for many distribution system operators (DSOs) during the 2022 energy crisis. Losses amplify with the square of the load, and as distributed energy resources (electric vehicles, heatpumps, photovoltaics) increase in number, both loading and losses will grow, necessitating considerable investment in the upcoming decades.

At Utiligize, our Forecast & Investment module reduces losses across all voltage levels by assessing each asset and determining when it’s economically feasible to replace it with a more efficient one, taking into account losses, capacity, security, and capital costs. We decided to stress test our optimization with a future scenario where a DSO would have the opportunity to replace its existing assets with identical-cost superconductor ones.

In the above graph, an investment lifecycle, assuming fixed 60-year asset lifetimes, for the entire Danish distribution system is shown, serving 5.9 million people. In the first 25 years, assets are being replaced before their end of life as the savings from loss reduction are greater than the capital expenditure and depreciation.

A noticeable surge is evident in year 0, signifying the immediate replacement of assets with very high losses. By 2050, 51% of the grid would be superconducting.

In this scenario, a medium electricity price has been assumed (the average day-ahead base price of 2022), with a significant load increase following Danish national expectations towards 2050, after which no further increases are projected.

In the following graph, we add two new scenarios. The blue line is the scenario from the first plot: an optimized deployment of superconductors. The green line is what happens if you replace end-of-life assets with superconductors, while the red line is a business as usual scenario without superconductors. In both non-optimized scenarios, losses escalate substantially towards 2050 due to the increasing load.

In the case of the rollout of superconducting grid components, savings (losses minus sunk cost) of 440 M EUR per year can be made based on an end-of-life investment plan in Denmark. Using a loss-optimised investment plan, additional savings of 511 M EUR can be reached, effectively halving the cost of operating a distribution grid.

Low voltage superconducting grids

Losses increase as the square of current, and current has an inverse relationship with voltage, so increasing voltage decreases losses. That’s why our transmission and distribution systems operate at kilovolt levels. Since superconductors are almost lossless (some AC impedance remains), the need for high voltage disappears, and with a critical current purported to be over 1000 amps/mm² for LK-99, a single cable with a 630mm2 cross-section, common at the 60kV level, should be able to carry 30 MW when operating at 48V. This is similar to existing power carrying capacities at the 60kV level. It’s possible that cables would be made up of tiny strands (fiber optics, for example can have 144 strands in a single insulator), as superconductors carry their current on the surfice of the material due to the skin effect. But in any case, there would not be a need for high voltages in a superconducting distribution grid.

This means the entire distribution voltage grid could be replaced with 48V DC components. This would, of course, require the complete replacement of all home appliances, e.g. to washing machines running BLDC motors, but digital devices and LED lighting would require smaller converters or none at all. The real advantage here is safety: 48V is relatively harmless upon human contact. Suddenly, everyone could wire their homes, vehicles, or communities, sparking a broad transformation in power system accessibility and applications.

At Utiligize, we’ve crafted a forward-thinking Asset Management solution capable of reducing DSOs’ CAPEX by up to 35% and OPEX by up to 25%. Reach out if you’re interested in a demo!