China has set the world a lofty goal by unveiling a proposal for a global energy network designed to run entirely on renewable energy. The $65 trillion dollar plan is aimed at reducing our reliance on traditional fuels by using internationally interconnected grids. While technically, this could be a feasible solution to many of the world's most pressing issues, is China proposing an idea simply too radical for today's policy maker’s.
In true capitalistic spirit, the State Grid Corporation of China, which happens to be the largest electricity company in the world, has been acquiring power plants across the globe. The company has projects in Italy, Brazil and the Philippines. It is even looking to win a number of bids in the Australian energy market. Until recently such expansion would be seen as nothing more than a company simply diversifying its energy portfolio. However, State Grid is actually attempting to selectively and rather strategically acquire select assets which will assist it in achieving its long term vision. And, a truly progressive vision it is.
Liu Zhenya, the Chairman of China’s State Grid, recently suggested plan to build a global electricity grid powered by supersized solar farms positioned near the equator alongside equivalently huge wind farms located in the poles. The project, if it were ever to actually get the approval of the majority of the world’s governments, would require most likely both public and private investment if the $65 trillion dollar price tag is to be met.
Using a complex web of specialised power lines, the entirety of the Earth's energy needs will be met using an internet-like distributed and decentralised electricity network. This is made possible due to the advancements of Ultra High Voltage of UHV power lines, which lose less power over long distances when compared to traditional wires. These direct current cables will allow vast amounts of power, which will be generated far from where it is finally consumed, to reach every household on the planet. Surprisingly, many experts who attended the conference where described much of what was being said as ‘straight forward’ and ‘technologically feasible’.
China has pioneered UHV cables, alongside many developing countries, mostly out of necessity. China recently spent around $65 billion upgrading their grid to high voltage cables, allowing wind farms to produce the majority of the power supply for an ever growing number of coastline cities.In most cases UHV cables are necessary where the source of electricity is positioned a great distance from the actual demand. Interestingly, the idea of using UHV cables to connect international grids has surfaced a few times in the past. Desertec was a proposed project that would allow for huge African solar farms to generate power for Europe. In 2012, a Japanese company suggested that an Asian supergrid could be powered using extensive wind farms located in Mongolia.
The benefit of having a globally connected grid is that it minimises the risk and limitations unique to regional renewable energy farms. Essentially, a distributed power grid means that if any one power plant was to go offline or experience a lack of sunshine or wind, the other interconnected nodes along the network would make up for the difference. The project proposed by the State Grid Corp. wouldn’t rely on any one centralised authority but rather implement ‘smart grids’. The idea is that the grid would function similar to the internet in that it would be able to communicate on a global scale in a distributed manner. This would allow for the automatic transfer of power from one geographical location to the next depending on the time of day, the weather and even peak usage periods.
While this could be palmed off as a rich man’s pipe dream, under further inspection, is seems that while it is an ambitious goal, the biggest infrastructure project ever in fact, it actually might be doable. In fact Xue Jiancong, an analyst at China Merchants New Energy Group said, "It's a brilliant plan...it might encounter difficulties during construction but it's possible."
However, the State Grid will have to convince the majority of the world's Governments to allow a Chinese lead coalition to begin working within their borders. It is rather an issue of domestic and international policy, and given the recent resurgence of nationalism being felt in many countries, as immigration towards the west increases dramatically, it might make such a collaborative effort nigh on impossible.
Yet, Liu Zhenya seems unperturbed, even going as far to write a complex and technical explanation of smart grid technology, which he believes will be one of the major factors in the project's success. It is his view that this supergrid will be the solution to what Liu sees as the world's three most pressing issues being pollution, power scarcity and climate change. This plan will see to it that by 2050, we are reliant on fossil fuels for only 20% of our energy needs.
Most importantly, don’t underestimate the sheer influence of a company the size of State Grid, which pulls in around $300 Billion each year. Liu Zhenya and the company as a whole is no stranger to negotiating on a global scale and given China’s history of making the impossible possible in regards to feats of engineering, an international electricity grid might not be just a fanciful idea afterall. The conference certainly attracted the right people including Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Administration and Masayoshi Son, the CEO of SoftBank Group Corporation. Regardless of the outcome, just as the Hyperloop is becoming a reality based on the words of an influential businessman magnate, this idea may also capture the imagination of the global community.