Global Supergrids Could Be the Future of Energy
If a green pivot is to happen, power grids must become “supergrids,” continent-spanning networks that can move green energy thousands of miles. The technology is here, but politics may stand in the way.
Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about the grid,
the dizzyingly huge system of cables, transformers,
and outlets that reliably powers our lives.
It’s an easily ignored, change-resistant part
of the modern world and that’s the way we like it.
But, as we move towards less planet-melting ways
or producing electricity,
the grid is going to have to evolve too.
We’re seeing so many countries and governments announcing
high targets when it comes to decarbonization
and being climate-neutral.
But this is just one side of the coin.
It’s not enough to simply generate green energy.
We also need to make sure that it’s transmitted
and distributed to the end consumers.
The grid of today just isn’t equipped for renewables,
so a new kind of grid
is starting to take shape, the supergrid.
The idea behind a supergrid is basically,
a grid that connects nations,
not just different parts of a country.
And the goal is to try and maximize the use of renewables
wherever they are generating electricity.
It’s an ambitious idea and one that could be necessary
to avoid the worst case scenarios of climate change.
But actually building it is a tough proposition.
I have to say, politics is the most difficult thing.
We are still trying to struggle each other,
competing each other.
A supergrid seems like a super good idea.
The question is, will it ever become a reality?
Since the earliest days of harnessing electricity,
getting power where it needs to go
has been at least as big a challenge
as making it in the first place.
And we’re talking about the earliest days,
since Thomas Edison’s first electric grid
in Downtown Manhattan in the 1880s.
What Edison gave us,
that system ran on what’s called direct current.
And direct current, you, at the voltages he was producing,
only goes about a mile.
Gretchen Bakke is a cultural anthropologist
who writes about, among other things, the grid.
He illuminated office buildings on Wall Street,
for example, mansions, and then small factory spaces.
But every time you wanted to go more than a mile,
you needed to build a new power plant.
And he thought this was fine.
He was like, “This will be fine.
We’ll just build another one one mile over.”
And then another one and another one.
And it was pretty clear that probably direct current
was not going to be the long-term answer.
And so, that set up the next problem,
which was, how can we transmit electricity further?
And the answer to that was given to us
by the famous Nikola Tesla,
who was quite the guy.
Tesla came up with the idea of an alternating current,
which doesn’t just flow in one direction,
it keeps alternating back and forth on a cable.
Alternating current, it allows you to increase the voltage
to a very high level,
whereas you couldn’t do it with direct current.
Bump up your current to higher voltage
and you can move your electricity a lot further.
There was some early rivalry over this.
Edison electrocuted an elephant to demonstrate
that AC was dangerous and shouldn’t be used.
But ultimately, AC was the clear winner.
Electricity was finally able to break out
of the one-mile barrier.
And that’s why alternating current
became the dominant form of transporting
and using electricity world over.
And that’s the story of electricity.
Just kidding, actually, renewables ruined everything.
Solar panels or even a wind farm
are not a corollary to a coal-burning power plant.
They’re usually in different places.
So coal, we can bring it where we want to burn it.
Wind, we have to build where it’s windy.
And wind is often happening
where there’s not that many people.
Currently we use alternating current
to be able to move electricity,
but the problem with alternating current
is that if you move it over a very long distance,
hundreds or even thousands of miles,
you lose too much of that electricity.
And so, moving it long distances makes it
an uneconomical choice.
If we can’t get renewable energy where it needs to go,
we can’t transition away from fossil fuels.
So, we need a better way to move electrons.
When we’re talking about the history of the grid,
AC technology become the dominant approach
to distribute and to transmit energy.
Nevertheless, the DC technology did not die.
The opposite is actually the case.
Jochen Costman is in charge of onshore DC power systems
at Siemens Energy.
Yes, that’s right, DC power,
the loser of the 19th century current wars
is making a comeback.
The solution that has become a consensus
in the industry now is to use direct current
or more specifically, high-voltage direct current.
HVDC turns out to be the best of all worlds,
traveling long distances without losing as much power
as AC along the way.
DC wasn’t able to go long distances previously
because you couldn’t create a high-voltage version,
but inventions in the past few decades have enabled us
to have the equipment and the power electronics needed
to generate high-voltage direct current.
The engineers here make building-sized machines
that generate that sweet, sweet high-voltage DC.
They partner with companies like Italy-based Prysmian,
which make the cables themselves,
long strands of insulated copper or aluminum
that can span hundreds of miles.
Another important use case of the HVDC technology
is the interconnections of countries
to allow efficient energy trading
between the countries and the network.
The supergrid in a way is already a reality in Europe.
Denmark is connected to Norway.
France is connected to Spain.
Sweden is connected to Germany.
Interconnectors let countries take advantage
of renewable energy wherever it’s being generated.
If one country is having a particularly windy day,
they can share some of that power with their neighbors.
That’s the idea behind the most recent interconnector
to be installed, a project called ElecLink
that’s rooted through the Channel Tunnel.
An interconnector allows surplus power
that isn’t used in the UK
to be transmitted over to France.
Or alternatively, take some energy from France
and transmit it back to the UK.
Phillip O’Gorman and his colleagues
have been working on ElecLink for more than a decade
and finally transmitted power for the first time
in May this year.
We transmit up to 1,000 megawatts in either direction,
enough to power a million to a million and a half homes.
You’re moving clean energy from a place
where it’s in surplus to a place where it’s in demand.
Certainly throughout the world,
we’re going to be seeing a lot more interconnectors
across the world, across the globe.
There is potential for them to do exactly
as we are doing now.
But in other parts of the world,
this idea has run into some trouble.
When I was first beginning to research the grid book,
which was in 2007,
there was a thing in America called the supergrid.
It didn’t exist.
But anytime you talked to anybody,
they would show you this beautiful little map.
They’d be like, “Here’s the map.
Here’s how we’re going to build these giant long-distance
high-voltage DC cables and link the country.”
The problem is, nobody would let anybody build
a long-distance power line.
Like, you couldn’t build a transmission line in America.
There is a surge of renewables being built
around the country and a lot of the best renewable solar
and wind resources are in places like in the central part
of the country.
But building transmission is really difficult
in this country.
There is a patchwork of federal, state,
local landowner rights that all have to be heard of.
Communities all have to have a say.
So TransWest is a planned transmission line
that would take about 3,000 megawatts of wind power
from Wyoming into Vegas, more than 700 miles.
And TransWest has been in development for 17 years.
Part of the reason it’s taken that long,
the project has had to secure permission
from more than 400 landowners along the route
and even a single holdout can delay a project for years.
Ranch owner Andy Maneotis did ultimately sell a chunk
of his land to TransWest,
but he’s not happy about it.
TransWest, they sent a young guy in,
pretty pushy, and he’d get you flared up real quick
with his pushing ya, they were condemn you
if you didn’t agree with what they wanted.
They’re just going to take the land
and there wasn’t nothing you were going to do about it.
I have no leverage.
I think they like to pick on the guys they know
that not got the money to hire the lawyers
to go to federal court.
If he waited and they actually filed
eminent domain papers,
then the value of like what he could get
out of that deal would fall tremendously.
I’m really not against the power lines itself
because I understand that people need electricity.
But it’s the way they come in here
and now I’m going to be dealing with it,
with construction, with people tearing the land up.
I’ve already got a full plate to handle with this ranch.
Just this year, TransWest settled
with the last holdout property owners,
meaning that finally, after 17 years,
construction of the line can get started.
And this is one of the more successful examples in the US.
There’s several transmission lines
that have been going through the process.
It’s been taking years.
They’re all held up for different reasons.
If we have this mandate to clean up the grid by 2035,
we’re going to have to figure out
how to speed up the construction of transmission now
to be able to build it in time.
Meanwhile, Asia is trying to be less like America
and more like Europe.
Mika Ohbayashi runs Japan’s Renewable Energy Institute,
which has come up with a plan to link up the grids
of some of the region’s biggest economies.
So the Asia Super Grid is a concept
to integrate Asian countries.
We started to focus on the Eastern Asian countries,
like China and Korea, we focus,
because that that in Far East Asia,
there is Mongolia,
which has the best renewable energy potential in the area.
That will benefit all Asian countries.
In theory, wind and solar energy
from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert could produce
as much as 2.6 terawatts of electricity,
more than twice the capacity of the entire United States.
The Asia Super Grid would link that power
to countries that produced more than 1/3
of the world’s CO2 emissions.
It’s an ambitious and potentially transformative plan,
but it’s not even close
to the biggest idea coming out of Asia.
There is an idea that’s being floated by China
to try and build a global grid.
China has a state-owned company called State Grid
that has the technology to build HVDC lines
and has built many of them across China.
And they want to try and promote this idea
of a globally interconnected electric grid.
It’s hard to overstate the potential climate impact
of a global grid connecting the most renewable-rich parts
of the world to the most energy-hungry population centers.
But these proposals from Asia are just that, proposals,
and that might not be changing anytime soon.
I have to say, politics is the most difficult thing.
We are still trying to struggle each other,
competing each other.
Japanese government has tension
with other countries that especially China, Korea.
Countries that aren’t 100% friendly aren’t likely
to want to link their energy systems together.
And with the war in Ukraine making European countries regret
their dependency on Russian oil,
any notion of a global supergrid is likely
to be off the table for a good while.
But the way Mika sees it,
we are past the point where the actions
of individual countries can move the needle
on climate change.
Developed countries, like Japan, Western World,
has to be renewable energy,
like kind of more than 60% or 70%, 80% by 2030.
So, we don’t have enough time to do it,
so I’m already saying,
every single cent or every single yen
that we invest something has to be invested
for climate change actions from now on.
As the grids evolved,
we have had to cooperate on larger and larger scales.
Edison’s DC grids served just a few factories
and rich people’s homes.
The grids of the 20th century spanned nations,
and now the grids of the 21st century
would forge links between people hundreds
or even thousands of miles apart.
But if we can all get used to the idea
of being a little less isolated,
we might find the puzzle of decarbonization
gets a lot easier to solve,
which would be super.
If we are going to hit net zero goals
and have 80, 90, or 100% renewable power grids,
then there is little chance to do that
without having really good transmission
across long distances.
If we look to our targets and ambitions we have,
we need to accelerate these processes.
And I think this is doable.
If we enable the grid to deal
with this new green energy generation,
I do believe that a climate-neutral world will be possible.
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