Would You Link to China's Global Power Grid?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 4/04/2016 01:08:00 PM
The future? Linking not to a national grid but an international one.
Adam Minter over at Bloomberg has an interesting article on how China's State Grid Corporation, the world's largest electricity supplier, is busy buying up energy assets all over the world. Apparently, it's all part of CEO Liu Zehnya's plans to eventually establish--get this--a global power grid. From an environmental standpoint, what's interesting is that it's designed to link producers of renewables to faraway customers in a way that has not been possible before when nearly all energy grids were, well, national:
China’s State Grid Corporation, the world’s biggest power company, is on an impressive buying binge. As Bloomberg News reports, the company is “actively in bidding” for power assets in Australia, hoping to add them to a portfolio of Italian, Brazilian, and Filipino companies. The goal isn’t simply to invest, however. State Grid's Chairman Liu Zhenya has a plan that he believes will stall global warming, put millions of people to work and bring about world peace by 2050.

The idea is to connect these and other power grids to a global grid that will draw electricity from windmills at the North Pole and vast solar arrays in Africa’s deserts, and then distribute the power to all corners of the world. Among other benefits, according to Liu, the system will produce “a community of common destiny for all mankind with blue skies and green land.”

It’s a crazy idea, of course. And if this so-called Global Energy Interconnection had been proposed by anyone other than the chairman of the world’s wealthiest power company, it wouldn’t deserve much consideration. But the $50 billion in cash generated by State Grid last year gives the company the deep pockets and political standing to put its priorities on the international energy agenda.

Last September, no less than Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly called for talks on establishing a global grid, while leading research organizations -- including the Argonne National Laboratory and the Edison Electrical Institute -- have participated in conferences looking at what would be needed to establish one. And whether or not it’s ever built, the technologies that underlie Liu's big idea are already changing how power will be generated and transmitted in coming decades.
Things get tricky with the geopolitics, however. Nothing suggests that China would necessarily be a more reliable energy supplier than, say, Russia. Ask the Europeans about Russian "consistency" in the midst of various spats when energy is used as a weapon. There is also the sheer cost of the whole infrastructure, which China alone cannot pay:
Technically, the vision is plausible. Power is transmitted today further than ever before, and smart grid technology is improving rapidly. But Liu’s vision faces considerable geopolitical hurdles, including laws (in Japan, for example) that prohibit importation of power from foreign countries. Likewise, it seems unlikely that China will be able to convince the nations who control the Arctic to open the region to Chinese energy investments.

Then there’s the matter of cost. State Grid estimates it would cost $50 trillion to develop a truly global grid. That would require international buy-in over a period of decades. At a time when short-termism and nationalism are rising worldwide, such a possibility seems remote.