Getting Up Close and Personal With High-Voltage Electricity

This expert on ultrahigh-voltage systems has intimate access to the world’s most powerful places

2 min read
Getting Up Close and Personal With High-Voltage Electricity
Photo: Robert Leroux

imgPhoto: Robert Leroux

As director of innovation at KEMA Laboratories in Arnhem, Netherlands, René Smeets is no stranger to power. The lab tests circuit breakers and transformers built for ultrahigh-voltage (UHV) transmission systems, ensuring that these components can control the titanic current flows unleashed during short circuits. KEMA’s strategies to mimic those extreme conditions in the lab, which Smeets describes in an article in the latest issue of Spectrum, give him an intimate understanding of how the components will perform when they’re deployed in vast, nation-spanning transmission networks.

  • graphic link to related feature articleRead the article now: “ Inside the Lab that Pushes Supergrid Circuit Breakers to the Limit.”Photo: KEMA Laboratories

Sometimes, however, this expert likes to get a broader view and see the equipment he tests in its natural habitat. In September, while in Shanghai for a meeting convened by the State Grid Corp. of China, Smeets and other UHV specialists got a tour of State Grid’s nearby Liantang substation (shown in the photo above). The utility says this facility, which receives electricity from coal-fired power plants in the interior province of Anhui, handles more high-voltage power than any other substation in the world. The brand new 1,100-kilovolt transmission system routinely delivers 6,900 megawatts of power to Shanghai. State Grid already has plans to scale it up to an astounding 10,000 MW.

What impressed Smeets most in this superlative substation? “All the components used in the station were Chinese-made,” he says. This fact didn’t surprise him, as KEMA Labs has tested many pieces of Chinese equipment in recent years. But it did demonstrate that China has developed a world-leading UHV industry. It’s an exciting time to be a UHV tourist, Smeets says: India’s Power Grid Corp. is now building a 1,200‑kV network, which will set a new mark for the highest-voltage transmission system. “It will be the pride of India,” Smeets says. He’s looking forward to a tour.

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

Keep Reading ↓Show less