REVOLT opposing unnecessary, excessive and intrusive powerline development

opposing unnecessary, excessive and intrusive powerline development

REVOLT Newsletter 221

Revolt news 21/03/2007

Statements made by me as editor or by other parties and quoted for information do not necessarily represent the views of Revolt. Criticism of government and industry, and grievances from members of the public, are in the nature of Revolt's work, though we try to give credit where it is due. Revolt is strictly non-party-political and regrets any offence which may be inadvertently caused.

APOLOGY: Letters from an aggrieved landowner appended for information to recent news issues included the word "fraudulent". Lest they might be construed as libellous, they have now been removed from the web site, following consultation with the Revolt committee. Without prejudice, we apologise unreservedly for any offence which may have been caused and dissociate ourselves from any such views implied by those letters.

1. The National Trust for Scotland has joined other bodies to form the Beauly-Denny Landscape Group (BDLG) to make representations at the public inquiries (APPENDIX A).

2. Snips from news@all-energy 83 & 84 of early March 2007 are at APPENDIX B.

3. Latest reports from the Beauly - Denny Inquiry, courtesy of Stirling Before Pylons, are at APPENDIX C.

4. Article from Press & Journal at APPENDIX D, courtesy of Country Guardian, says the power company SSE proposing the Beauly-Denny line is to seek compulsory purchase of land where landowners won't grant a voluntary wayleave. I wonder if they mean "compulsory powers", which would take the form of a compulsory wayleave (not purchase) - a common misunderstanding. But I think compulsory purchase might be a legal option, though in England National Grid would normally only pursue a compulsory wayleave.

5. Interesting article (APPENDIX E), also at http://tinyurl.com/2oqn6n , updates the position on high-temperature superconducting (HTSC) technology and suggests super-efficient underground power cables might become more practicable. Revolt recommended investment in this technology in the 1990s and reported an EU summary of its potential then. Taking efficiency into account, which virtually eliminates high- cost power losses which you get with overhead lines (OHL), super- conducting cables can compare more reasonably than conventional undergrounding. The estimated cost factor for HTSC compared with OHL was about three.

6. New York company Shaw Energy Delivery Services contacted us to mention their Thermal Rate Monitors, a product which can help use transmission lines more efficiently. It works by having a replica conductor in situ and relaying information to reveal unused line capacity. While this might help in avoiding unnecessary emergency switch out, it would seem unlikely to reduce the number of lines needed. For more, see http://www.ThermalRate.com/ 

7. Students often contact Revolt in connection with projects about powerlines and related issues. There is a spate of contacts at the moment about a hypothetical (?) powerline to run across Devon. The project objective is to advise the power company on what it could do for objectors to minimise their objections. My answer might seem paradoxical: engage them up front in open stakeholder dialogue in the decision making process. That may encourage objections, but experience suggests to me that it might avoid or shorten formalities, make for better decisions and enhance the company's reputation. But it would best be started early, bringing together all stakeholders with diverse interests, and independently facilitated. What do readers think?

***** *****

APPENDIX A. Briefings 27-2-07 and 19-3-07 from National Trust for Scotland (extract).

Briefing 27-2-07:

The Trust is opposing the proposed new 400 kV electricity transmission line from Beauly (near Inverness) to Denny (near Stirling). The Trust is represented at the current Public Inquiry into the proposal as part of the Beauly-Denny Landscape Group (BDLG), which is a coalition between the Trust and five other organisations:

Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland John Muir Trust Mountaineering Council of Scotland Ramblers Scotland Scottish Wild Land Group

This is probably the biggest Public Inquiry since that into the Harris superquarry, and it is scheduled to last the whole of 2007. Full details of the Inquiry can be seen on the official Inquiry website at http://www.beaulydenny.co.uk 

The proposed development comprises a line of 600 pylons, mostly over 50m tall, along a 220 km route. BDLG considers that this (together with the wind turbine developments it would encourage) would have an unacceptable impact on some of Scotland's most cherished landscapes, that the case for it has not been satisfactorily made, that the economic justification for it is flawed and that it is therefore not necessary at this time. The developers (Scottish and Southern Energy and Scottish Power) claim that the pylons are necessary to bring electricity from the increasing numbers of wind turbine developments in the Highlands and Islands to the main centres of demand in the Central Belt and England.

A briefing leaflet which summarises the BDLG case against the pylons has been produced. A news item about the Inquiry has been posted on the Trust's website

Further information is available from the Trust's Policy and Planning Department at Central Office on 0131-243 9522 or <policy@nts.org.uk>.

Update 19-3-07:

The joint applicants (Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Limited and Scottish Power Transmission) took the first five weeks of the Inquiry to present their case, including dozens of witnesses being cross-examined by representatives of the objectors. The Trust, through its membership of the Beauly-Denny Landscape Group (BDLG), has been represented throughout these submissions and has managed to extract several significant admissions through cross-examination. The developers have presented a great deal of evidence, but we remain convinced that this does not adequately justify the adverse effects the scheme will have on the Scottish landscape. The developers' evidence has aimed to prove that the scheme is necessary to transmit electricity from the north of Scotland to the south. However, under cross-examination from BDLG's solicitor, they have admitted that they had not fully assessed an alternative east coast route which would require much less new infrastructure and that they had not compared like-for-like costs when assessing the cost of subsea cable alternatives.

No transcript or official report of the Inquiry's proceedings is being prepared, making it difficult for those not attending the entire Inquiry to follow the numerous arguments which have taken place between the various parties. However, Nicki Baker of Stirling Before Pylons, who has attended most of the Inquiry to date, has done us a great public service by preparing helpful written briefings at the end of weeks 2, 3, 4 and 5 and has shared them with some of the other objectors. These SBP updates are available from me on request, on the understanding that they are solely her own interpretation of what has taken place and should not be taken in any way as an official record of the proceedings.

Various groups of objectors made three formal legal submissions to the Reporters following the completion of the applicants' case. All three submissions argue that the Inquiry should be stopped, but do so on three different grounds: BDLG in relation to Ofgem's duty to assess environmental impacts, Eilean Aigas Estate in relation to strategic environmental assessment; and Highlands Before Pylons in relation to subsea alternatives. This generated a certain amount of press coverage; in addition Ramblers Scotland have publicly called for the Inquiry to be scrapped. The Reporters have given the applicants a week to reply in writing to the various legal arguments before making their decision, but meanwhile the Inquiry is continuing as planned. These submissions are available from me on request; however the Reporters have refused to publish them on the Inquiry website.

The many objectors, including BDLG, now have a further five weeks between them to present their evidence against the proposal, with a two- week break over Easter. The objectors' evidence commenced on 13 March, starting with the four local authorities through whose area the line would run and the Cairngorms National Park Authority, to be followed by Scottish Natural Heritage. The Reporters have ruled that BDLG's solicitor cannot question the Councils' witnesses, on the grounds that 'friendly cross-examination' by one objector of another is not allowed. We consider this to be too simplistic an approach, as there are fundamental differences between the cases of the various objectors in that BDLG opposes the whole line in principle whereas all other objectors just want parts of it moved or buried underground. BDLG is scheduled to appear in April, when we will present evidence from an expert witness from the electricity industry speaking on the deficiencies of the technical case, from a professor of economics speaking on the poor economic case and from landscape experts from within the group about the need to protect the Highland landscape from further attrition.

***** *****

APPENDIX B Snips from news@all-energy 83 & 84 of March 2007.

From number 83:

1.1.Blair backs EU RE targets Tony Blair will complete a British U-turn over green energy and support an ambitious 20 per cent mandatory target for renewable power as a share of European generation capacity. The British prime minister has overruled his industry minister and will argue at an EU summit that Europe needs binding targets for renewables to show it is serious in fighting climate change http://tinyurl.com/2cwq9r 

1.2.Energy White Paper delayed A report setting out Britain's future energy policy is likely to be delayed until early May following a court ruling against the government, Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said http://today.reuters.co.uk/news/ 

3.1.Regulating offshore electricity distribution DTI has published the Government's Decision on how to regulate offshore electricity distribution. This decision forms part of an on-going process by the Government to establish the necessary regulatory framework for the delivery of large amounts of offshore renewable electricity generation http://www.dti.gov.uk/files/file38027.pdf 

From number 84:

1.2.Draft Climate Bill published The draft Climate Change Bill, the first of its kind in any country, and accompanying strategy, set out a framework for moving the UK to a low- carbon economy http://tinyurl.com/2g3285  A BBC analysis of the proposed Bill http://tinyurl.com/ytolcl 

2.1."Don't overplay global warming" Two leading UK climate researchers - both Royal Meteorological Society figures - have criticised those among their peers who they say are "overplaying" the global warming message http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/6460635.stm 

4.2.Under-sea cables best for Scottish RE The use of sub-sea cables is the best long-term economic and environmental solution to take electricity from RE developments in the Scottish islands to bigger markets in the south, according to an official report http://tinyurl.com/3ey55g 

4.3.Beauly Denny Inquiry Keep up to date with the state of play http://www.beaulydenny.co.uk 

***** *****

APPENDIX C Report from Stirling Before Pylons on the Beauly - Denny Inquiry.

Strategy Session Wk 4: 27 Feb-2 March '07 This note is prepared for the benefit of community groups and their supporters, with an interest in the Beauly to Denny power line public inquiry. It is NOT a press release.

Week 4 started with the Reporters coming back with their response to SSE's request that the DTI technical adviser ask fewer questions, or give prior notice if he's going to raise awkward issues. It was a lengthy and unambiguous "No!" and must have been a little painful for SSE to hear.

They were however no kinder to the third party request to recall a witness to answer further questions about sub-sea cables, and refused this also.

Week 4 also saw the timetable catch up with itself, mainly because there were few or no questions for a number of the witnesses (those talking about noise, construction noise and vibration, forestry, geology and hydrology). The big-interest witnesses were Mark Turnbull on landscape, William Bailey of EMFs and Health, Keith MacLean on Consultations, David Keddie on Tourism, and Alan Leslie on Archaeology and Cultural Heritage. I offer a few observations on each of these, and others, below - to be read, as always, as a personal impression of what went on and possibly quite different from the conclusions that the Reporters may have drawn.

Mark Turnbull continued to stand up to cross-examination, and didn't budge from his dogmatic stance on what constitutes "sensitivity" (nothing matters much if it's not been designated a National Scenic area - not even a National Park), or his opposition to undergrounding.

William Bailey was there to minimise the importance of the scientific evidence on the harm to health that arises from living close to high- voltage power lines, and was closely questioned by John Campbell QC on behalf of Stirling Before Pylons. Dr Bailey's line was that opinions must be developed only by large panels of acknowledged experts drawn from a wide array of scientific specialisms, assessing carefully the quality and results of all the available scientific evidence. Even so, he is more approving of those panels and individuals who happen to agree with him. He went so far as to acknowledge that it is generally accepted that there is an association between living close to high voltage power lines and getting childhood leukaemia, and that siting power lines close to housing should be avoided (but only if doing so costs little or nothing).

The contrast between the quantities, depth and quality of relevant research available on the Health issues, compared with those available on Tourism, could hardly have been more marked. David Keddie wanted us to accept some rather light-weight research that he had carried out, regarding the possible economic impacts of the power line on tourism, in the absence of any other evidence. His two surveys draw dramatically different conclusions, so heaven knows what the real answer is to the question of how much impact the power line would have on businesses. Keddie's evidence eventually resorted to a back-of-envelope calculation, based on some rather heroic assumptions, to come up with a best-guess that there would be a 3.2% reduction in tourism-related business within 10 km of the line. Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that perhaps the figure should have ended up as 4.3%, but retracted this later on re-examination by SSE's advocate.

Keith MacLean claimed that he'd carried out a splendid job on consultations, but admitted that his aim had been to find out the range of problems SSE might encounter in putting forward their proposals, rather than having any real wish to let people know what might be landed on them, or addressing their concerns. On being asked if he felt that getting 17,300 objections lodged to the proposals, with just 50-odd letters of support, really matched his claim that the consultation process had been successful and had led to consensus, he became a little defensive.

Alan Leslie outlined the methodology used to assess the impacts of the line on historical and archaeological sites. It turned out that this basically concentrated on archaeology rather than history, and that Historic Scotland themselves share this bias. Leslie acknowledged that local authorities should play a part that is equal to Historic Scotland in relation to sites that are not formally listed or designated, but also acknowledged that it was Historic Scotland, rather than the local authorities, that had been most involved in setting the parameters for the work he did. He also revealed that when it came to assessing the settings of sites, the dominant opinion was that of the landscape architect - and that the definition of "setting" is elusive and its assessment boils down, as in so many other areas of environmental impact assessment, to a matter of personal opinion.

Michelle Clark, from National Grid, had a disappointing day, giving evidence on noise. Clearly well-intentioned, she tabled an amendment giving updated figures for the noise levels assessed for several hundred properties along the line. It was pure misfortune that the property identified as having the highest noise impacts turned out to be owned by one of the people lined up to cross-examine, and worse, that the figures she provided were completely and very misleadingly wrong for all the properties along that stretch of line. It would be worth checking the figures for houses in your area, when SSE send out this document!

Week 5 will start with Gillian Beauchamp, giving evidence on the methodology used to assess Landscape and Visual Impacts - perhaps the most important element of all the evidence. This will be followed by several witnesses on ecology and habitat issues, and SSE's evidence will conclude with its witness on Planning issues. ________________________________________

THE PUBLIC INQUIRY INTO THE BEAULY-DENNY POWER LINE

Strategy Session Wk 5: 6-9th March '07

This note is prepared for the benefit of community groups and their supporters, with an interest in the Beauly to Denny power line public inquiry. It is NOT a press release.

Week 5 saw the completion of SSE's evidence to the Inquiry, apart from providing the additional material on EMF levels, and health & safety, required by the DTI's technical adviser. SSE are still trying hard to avoid providing this information: their Advocate gave notice, late on Friday, that they will be taking legal steps to prevent the Reporters requiring this information. One can only wonder why this issue is of such importance to them?

The issue of data referring to named properties rumbles on too, though more quietly. It turns out that SSE simply guessed what names refer to which properties, on the basis of ambiguous map data, and frequently got it completely wrong. In the Stirling area at least, the results are seriously misleading. SSE have been asked to identify what data in which chapters of the Environmental Statement give the names of properties, but have not indicated whether they will.

The week started with 2 days of cross-examination of the witness on Landscape and Visual Impact issues. She stuck to her guns throughout, even when it looked rather obvious that there was considerable scope for difference of opinion. As with SSE's other key witnesses, the main weakness in her case is the way the SSE team chose to define their own parameters for the assessment of impacts, rather than sticking fully to the Holford Rules, SNH guidance etc. Along with SSE's basic approach, of looking simply to find the least worst route, after having made the decision to put an overhead line between Beauly and Denny (and the various sub-stations), this has led to some highly questionable overlooking of areas of high sensitivity. As always, there was considerable questioning of SSE's determination not to accept any undergrounding along the line, but the witness - as with all others - stuck to the position that none is needed.

There followed four witnesses dealing with issues of trees, birds, bats and bogs, but as we didn't sit through their sessions, we can't report on them. The evidence of all four witnesses was completed in just over a day.

SSE's last witness dealt with Planning issues. His evidence tries to dismiss all the statutory development plans (structure plans and local plans) of the 3 local authorities along the route, as these all contain policies that would deem the line unacceptable. His evidence drew heavily on certain key planning policy documents, notably NPPG6 and Draft SPP6 (on renewable energy). He was challenged regarding these, SPP1, NPPG 14, PAN 58 and the National Parks (Scotland) Act, all of which set the legal and statutory policy framework against which SSE's application has to be considered. Cross-examination referred back to some basic issues, like the government's policies on climate change, the possibility of other alternatives being better (particularly the sub-sea cable option), the question of whether this is in fact simply a commercial proposal being put forward by a private company with no relationship to public policy (as stated by the Reporters in December), and the evidence of the earliest witnesses. In this way, SSE's evidence came full circle, and we came quite neatly back to Square One, with the lack of, and great need for, a Strategic Environmental Assessment being brought into focus yet again.

Next week sees the start of all the other parties' evidence, starting with four days allocated to the joint evidence of the local authorities and the National Park Authority. As we are only planning to sit in on sessions of particular interest to us, it is unlikely that we will have enough material for further weekly bulletins. We hope that third party organisations, at least, will put together their own summaries of the sessions at which their witnesses appear.

For the latest news on where the Inquiry has got to, and which witnesses are due on in a given week, refer to the public inquiry website being supported by SSE at: http://www.beaulydenny.co.uk .

The Reporters have started setting out the way in which the first local session, in Inverness, will be conducted. Their preference is for as much as possible of the material to be taken via Hearings, but SSE, the councils and SNH all indicated that they believe the most important issues will require the standard adversarial approach to be used. The difference is that with the adversarial approach, witnesses submit their evidence in writing in advance, along with supporting documents, and are cross-examined on it all at the Inquiry, with the Reporters taking a more or less passive role. With Hearings, no evidence is submitted in writing, no documents are lodged, and the Reporters set out the agenda to be followed, with them deciding which witnesses are asked what. The general belief is that the Hearings system can lead to witnesses having no opportunity to say their piece, and participants having no opportunity to challenge the other side on the weaknesses of their case.

The current situation is that there is likely to be a hybrid system adopted, with some issues being dealt with under the adversarial system, and others using the Hearings approach. The latter is most likely to be used for sessions dealing with the issues pertaining to each local stretch of the line, except where these stretches cover the most controversial issues. ________________________________________

The Strategy session of the Inquiry, dealing with all the over-arching and generic issues (including the need for the line, the health issues, and the principles of undergrounding, as well as a lot of methodological issues) will continue until 11 May, Tuesday to Friday, between 10 am and 5 - 5.30pm, at the Quality Hotel, next to Perth Station. There will be a 2-week break for Easter.

Local issues will be dealt with at four local sessions, starting in Inverness, and reaching Stirling on 20 November. The Stirling session, and the entire Inquiry, will eventually reach its end on 20 December 2007.

For further details, contact Nicki Baker or Peter Pearson on 01786 833399

***** *****

APPENDIX D Press & Journal 05 Mar 07

POWER GIANT PLANNING HUGE PYLONS IN HIGHLANDS ACCUSED OF ARROGANCE

The power giant planning to double the size of hundreds of pylons running through the Highlands has been accused of arrogance and of pre-judging the public inquiry into the issue.

Objectors groups and landowners are furious that Scottish and Southern Energy has published a long list of potential compulsory purchase orders along the 137-mile route to accommodate the project.

They featured in public notices in newspapers last week and concern "wayleaves" - which promise landowners a fee for developer access - or an intent to compulsorily purchase stretches of land.

Andrew Fielden, who represents the family owners of the Ardverikie Estate, home of TV's Monarch of the Glen and on the route, said: "We are not going to grant any wayleaves until the outcome of the inquiry.

"I think a number of other estates in the area are taking the same view. They're asking for wayleaves for something they haven't actually got planning consent for.

"If they compulsorily purchase in the meantime I think it rather negates the whole point of the inquiry."

Eddie Hughes, chairman of Highlands Before Pylons, said: "This is indicative of SSE's total ignorance towards the objectors' feelings. They're not giving the inquiry an opportunity to consider all the alternatives.

"It just emphasises the lack of democracy and power that the Electricity Act gives to transmission operators. Things like wayleaves should be properly negotiated. But SSE have been as heavy- handed as ever, making a mockery of consultation."

Inverness councillor David Henderson, a development consultant formerly with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said: "My initial reaction is that there's an arrogance here by SSE, a prejudgment of the outcome of the inquiry. It's almost an abuse of corporate power and the publicity has been minimal." SSE spokesman Julian Reeves summed up the criticism that the company was premature or presumptuous by advertising compulsory purchase orders during the inquiry as "mischief-making" and "absolute nonsense".

He said: "This is being driven by the Scottish Executive who've taken the very sensible approach that, while we're carrying out the local hearings as part of the public inquiry, for example the one in Inverness, the same (executive) reporters should also listen to any hearings in respect of compulsory purchases or wayleaves associated with the line at the time.

"It doesn't presume anything because at the end of the day if the result of the inquiry is that we should not build we just walk away from everything.

"It is commonsense that the executive uses the same reporters to hear not only the evidence for and against the overhead line, but also the evidence in respect of the compulsory purchases."

He added: "We will continue to work to reach voluntary agreement with as many landowners as possible."

Responding to complaints that notice of the orders was limited, he insisted company had adhered to stipulated levels of advertising and that the company was also speaking directly with all the landowners affected.

The Cairngorms National Park Authority is, meanwhile, writing to the public inquiry reporters' unit to press for a transcript of daily proceedings to be published to make the hearing more accessible to people living along the route who cannot attend the Perth proceedings.

Badenoch East Councillor Gregor Rimell said: "It appears the company are taking for granted that they are going to get permission after the inquiry, so they are prejudging it.

"Is the public inquiry actually going to ask some sensible basic questions or is it going to provide a stage for SSE to get away with what they want to do?"

***** *****

APPENDIX E BBC news item on superconducting cables.

The 'new age' of super materials By Jonathan Fildes, Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Levitation becomes possible using superconducting materials In 1987, Ronald Reagan declared that the US was about to enter an incredible new era of technology.

Levitating high-speed trains, super-efficient power generators and ultra-powerful supercomputers would become commonplace thanks to a new breed of materials known as high temperature superconductors (HTSC). "The breakthroughs in superconductivity bring us to the threshold of a new age," said the president. "It's our task to herald in that new age with a rush."

But 20 years on, the new world does not seem to have arrived. So what happened?

Early promise Superconductivity was first discovered in 1911 by researchers at the University of Leiden who used solid mercury in their experiments. Superconductors have no electrical resistance, so unlike conventional conductors they allow an electric current to flow through without any loss.

At the start, the phenomenon was only seen in materials cooled close to absolute zero, which according to theory is the state of zero heat energy.

Three-quarters of a century later, the highest temperature achieved for the onset of superconductivity, the so-called transition temperature, was a frigid 23 Kelvin (-250C).

This allowed scientists to exploit the phenomenon in specialist applications such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners and high energy physics particle colliders, cooled by liquid helium. But more day-to-day applications, such as replacing the electricity grid with superconducting wires, remained impossible without materials able to operate at higher temperatures.

Closer to zero The breakthrough came in 1986. Two IBM researchers, Georg Bednorz and Alex Mueller, discovered a new family of ceramic superconductors, known as the copper oxide perovskites, that operated at 35K (-238C) The work was rapidly followed up Paul Chu, of the University of Houston, who discovered materials operating at 93K (-182C) The discovery meant that superconductors had entered the temperature range of liquid nitrogen (77K, -196C), an abundant and well understood coolant.

"All of a sudden everything was different," said Professor Chu. "There was a euphoric feeling. People in the field thought nothing was impossible." The discovery prompted a huge gathering of physicists in New York to discuss the breakthrough, a meeting later called the "Woodstock of Physics".

Precise structure But large-scale commercialisation of the technology would prove more difficult. "The material was not as simple as we originally thought," said Professor Chu.

Despite an intensive two-decade search, the underlying mechanism of superconductivity in the ceramics is still disputed. In addition, their exact structure, requiring ultra-thin layers of different elements stacked on top of each other, means they are very difficult and expensive to manufacture.

"Atomically, you have to line them up very precisely in order for the supercurrent to flow," explained Professor Chu. This, coupled with the fact that ceramics are brittle and difficult to turn into flexible wires and films, meant that prospects for immediate exploitation were not good.

"I think the expectations were a little unrealistic," said Dr Dennis Newns of IBM. "The typical time it takes from inventing a new concept to application is 20 years," he said. "And that is exactly what we have seen."

Cool running Companies in Japan, Europe, China, South Korea and the US are forging ahead with applications. In the US, American Superconductor has developed a way to "bend the unbendable", creating HTSC wires that can carry 150 times more electricity than the equivalent copper cables.

"Twenty years ago you would see people making ceramic fibres and trying to bend them and it was like a dry stick of spaghetti," said Greg Yurek, CEO and founder of the company.

To get around this brittleness, the company embeds up to 85 tiny filaments of superconducting ceramic in a ribbon of metal 4.4mm (0.17 inches) wide.

"Think of optical fibres," said Dr Yurek. "If you have a rod of glass and you whack it on your desk it will shatter. "Drop down to a fine optical fibre and it becomes flexible - it's the same principle here."

The company also produces wires with a coating of the ceramic just one micron (millionth of a metre) thick on a metal alloy. Both are cooled by a sheath of liquid nitrogen.

Short sections of the wires have already been installed in Columbus, Ohio, and a further half-mile of cable will soon be laid on Long Island, New York.

In the short term, longer stretches of the supercooled cable will be difficult to install, as it requires an infrastructure to pump liquid nitrogen around the grid. But Dr Yurek believes that it will not be long before other firms start to offer utility companies these cryogenic services. "This is the model they have used in the MRI industry to guarantee the cold," he said.

Shrinking motors The company also promotes its HTSC wires for other advanced applications. Central Japan Railways uses coils of it for their superconducting experimental magnetic levitation (maglev) train. American Superconductor has also developed an electric motor using coils of superconducting wire for use in the next generation of US Navy destroyers.

Electric motors are used by most commercial cruise liners, but are typically very bulky. Using HTSC technology dramatically shrinks their size and also increases their efficiency. The company is just about to start testing its latest 36.5-megawatt engine that is cooled by off-the-shelf liquid helium refrigerators and weighs 75 tonnes. By comparison, an engine based on copper wires would weigh 300 tonnes.

"That's great for cruise ships and the navy, because they can use that space for other things like passenger cabins or munitions," said Dr Yurek.

"New age" Experimentally, things have also moved on. New superconductors have been found. For example, a new mercury-based compound has a transition temperature of 134K (-139C) "When we applied pressure we raised it up to 164K (-109C) - that's a record," said Professor Chu.

"Of course from an application point of view, it's hopeless." However, other experimental work raises the possibility of discovering room temperature superconductors that would require no exotic cooling equipment.

A new theory, outlined in a paper in the journal Nature Physics by Dr Newns and his IBM colleague Dr Chang Tsuei, seeks to explain the elusive mechanism of superconductivity in the class of ceramics discovered in 1986.

"We don't see any fundamental limits," said Dr Tsuei. "If someone discovered a room-temperature superconductor tomorrow that fits with what is outlined by our theory, we wouldn't be surprised at all," added Dr Newns.

This kind of optimism, seen for the first time in the mid-1980s, now seems to be deserved. There has been a crescendo of research, while at the same time the first commercial HTSC products are rolling out of factories. According to Dr Yurek, this is a sign that the new age promised by Ronald Reagan is finally here. "I think we're on a launching pad here and we're now ready to take off," he said.

***** *****

-- Mike O'Carroll

 

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