Greening the electric grid, in New England and around the world, won’t just require an entire new generation of power plants powered by wind, sun, and water. It will also require new lines, to get that electricity to densely populated areas.
Toward that end, Woburn startup VEIR and utility giant National Grid have teamed up to work on a solution. VEIR is developing a new kind of power line, one that can carry 5 to 10 times as much electricity as existing lines, by using a supercooling process involving liquid nitrogen being pushed through a pipe to reduce friction and free up the flow of electricity. The hope is to replace existing conventional lines with these more powerful ones, as well as to develop new long-distance lines.
To properly test its real-world applicability, VEIR needs the help of an existing electric utility. That’s where National Grid comes in.
“Our real value is effectively developing a solution which we think could be a game changer to accelerate the energy transition,” said David Wright, chief engineer of the British-based utility, whose US headquarters is in Waltham. “It’s the only real technology out there that has the potential to able to do 5 to 10 times the transmission capacity on the existing infrastructure.”
Wright said National Grid’s engineers would provide guidance throughout the research and development process at VEIR and in return, National Grid would receive a small equity stake in the startup. National Grid’s primary motivation, though, is to come up with a better power line, Wright said, not necessarily to make a windfall from its investment.
It’s unclear where these so-called superconductor lines would be installed first. Wright said he expects they may show up somewhere in National Grid’s territory in the United Kingdom, Massachusetts, or New York as soon as 2028.
Until now, efforts to create superconductor lines for electricity grid purposes required too much accessory equipment, and thus were not practical for an overhead application. But VEIR’s technology would use a controlled evaporation technique along the length of the line, requiring much simpler mechanical systems. VEIR claims its power lines would be less obtrusive than conventional high-voltage lines, with shorter towers and narrower rights of way — or as one executive recently put it, “more power, less tower.”
VEIR is considered a spinout of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the Bill Gates-backed venture capital firm, and Breakthrough remains its biggest investor. The three-year-old firm announced it had $12 million in venture backing as of the spring of 2021, and is in the process of raising a new round of funding. This past spring, the company also won $2.9 million in federal research funding from the US Department of Energy, and later received $300,000 from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
Adam Wallen, VEIR’s chief executive, said the technology won’t necessarily be first used in National Grid’s territory. Wallen suspects it might instead first be put to work in other countries, where demand for new power lines is greater, hopefully within five years. But having a utility partner is crucial to designing the system and preparing for regulatory scrutiny, he said.
“We could go it alone,” Wallen said. “But it’s definitely beneficial to have a well known respected global utility that’s making sure we’re developing a product with industry standards and industry performance in mind.”