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One problem with wind power is that it's frequently generated in places far from the end-users in cities. That means you need a powerline from, say, South Dakota to Minneapolis, or from Amarillo to Dallas.  

The bad news is, those powerlines lose energy along the way. The good news is, you can reduce the losses dramatically by increasing the voltage in the powerline. The bad news is, existing powerlines weren't built for the kind of voltages that would make power from remote windfarms cheap and reliable. And upgrading a powerline is expensive.

That's why the recent announcement from the University of Manchester (UK) leaves you with a forehead-hitting "doh!" moment: why didn't anyone think of this before?

Insulated cross-arms? Yes!

A typical high-voltage powerline looks like this. There's a tower (called a pylon) made of steel, with (typically) three pairs of cross-arms at different heights. At the end of each cross-arm hangs an insulator made of a type of plastic that won't allow electricity to flow. The wire that carries the power is hung from the insulator.

It's the job of the insulator to keep the powerline itself far away from the steel of the cross-arm or the pylon, because if the line gets too close, electricity could short from the powerline to the grounded cross-arm. That means the insulator has to be long, to keep it away from the cross-arm. But that long insulator then could sway in the wind toward the pylon, which might also cause a short. All of which means that there's a limit to how much voltage the line can carry, based on the minimum distance the line could get to the pylon or the cross-arm.

The "Doh!" moment comes when you realize that all you have to do is make the cross-arm itself from insulator material, as in the photo below:

We're looking at the middle cross-arm on the right. Notice how short the hanging insulator is. That's because the cross-arm itself is made of insulating material, so the line can't short to the cross-arm. The line could still short to the pylon, but since the insulator is so short, the amount of wind-sway is going to be very very small. And that means that this line is capable of higher voltages than its sisters, because it can never get as close to the pylon as they can.

Tests at Manchester indicate that this ultra-simple innovation could enable voltages up to 2.5 times higher than conventional cross-arms. And it can be done without replacing the expensive pylons. Why is this a big deal?

Increasing the voltage by a factor of 2.5 would reduce powerline losses by a factor of six. And that's a BFD, as Joe Biden would say.

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Originally posted to The Numerate Historian on Tue Jan 22, 2013 at 09:05 AM PST.

Also republished by Good News, SciTech, and Kosowatt.

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