A greener grid
China’s embrace of a new electricity-transmission technology holds lessons for others
The case for high-voltage direct-current connectors
Jan 14th 2017
YOU cannot negotiate with nature. From the offshore wind farms of the North Sea to the solar panels glittering in the Atacama desert, renewable energy is often generated in places far from the cities and industrial centres that consume it. To boost renewables and drive down carbon-dioxide emissions, a way must be found to send energy over long distances efficiently.
The technology already exists (see article). Most electricity is transmitted today as alternating current (AC), which works well over short and medium distances. But transmission over long distances requires very high voltages, which can be tricky for AC systems. Ultra-high-voltage direct-current (UHVDC) connectors are better suited to such spans. These high-capacity links not only make the grid greener, but also make it more stable by balancing supply. The same UHVDC links that send power from distant hydroelectric plants, say, can be run in reverse when their output is not needed, pumping water back above the turbines.
Boosters of UHVDC lines envisage a supergrid capable of moving energy around the planet. That is wildly premature. But one country has grasped the potential of these high-capacity links. State Grid, China’s state-owned electricity utility, is halfway through a plan to spend $88bn on UHVDC lines between 2009 and 2020. It wants 23 lines in operation by 2030.
That China has gone furthest in this direction is no surprise. From railways to cities, China’s appetite for big infrastructure projects is legendary (see article). China’s deepest wells of renewable energy are remote—think of the sun-baked Gobi desert, the windswept plains of Xinjiang and the mountain ranges of Tibet where rivers drop precipitously. Concerns over pollution give the government an additional incentive to locate coal-fired plants away from population centres. But its embrace of the technology holds two big lessons for others. The first is a demonstration effect. China shows that UHVDC lines can be built on a massive scale. The largest, already under construction, will have the capacity to power Greater London almost three times over, and will span more than 3,000km.
The second lesson concerns the co-ordination problems that come with long-distance transmission. UHVDCs are as much about balancing interests as grids. The costs of construction are hefty. Utilities that already sell electricity at high prices are unlikely to welcome competition from suppliers of renewable energy; consumers in renewables-rich areas who buy electricity at low prices may balk at the idea of paying more because power is being exported elsewhere. Reconciling such interests is easier the fewer the utilities involved—and in China, State Grid has a monopoly.
That suggests it will be simpler for some countries than others to follow China’s lead. Developing economies that lack an established electricity infrastructure have an advantage. Solar farms on Africa’s plains and hydroplants on its powerful rivers can use UHVDC lines to get energy to growing cities. India has two lines on the drawing-board, and should have more.
Things are more complicated in the rich world. Europe’s utilities work pretty well together but a cross-border UHVDC grid will require a harmonised regulatory framework. America is the biggest anomaly. It is a continental-sized economy with the wherewithal to finance UHVDCs. It is also horribly fragmented. There are 3,000 utilities, each focused on supplying power to its own customers. Consumers a few states away are not a priority, no matter how much sense it might make to send them electricity. A scheme to connect the three regional grids in America is stuck. The only way that America will create a green national grid will be if the federal government throws its weight behind it.
Building a UHVDC network does not solve every energy problem. Security of supply remains an issue, even within national borders: any attacker who wants to disrupt the electricity supply to China’s east coast will soon have a 3,000km-long cable to strike. Other routes to a cleaner grid are possible, such as distributed solar power and battery storage. But to bring about a zero-carbon grid, UHVDC lines will play a role. China has its foot on the gas. Others should follow.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “A greener grid”