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Renewable Energy Boom Dependent on New Energy Infrastructure

As the low-emission economy evolves, building new generation technologies is just half the challenge. The other half of the challenge lies in building the transport and distribution networks – and Asia is the region to watch, specifically China, Japan, South Korea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) States, East Timor and Australia.

One-third of humanity lives in these locations. One-fifth of global GDP and one-fifth of global gas emissions are created there. This region will become the world’s largest economic block in coming years. Therefore, the battle to limit destructive climate change will largely be won or lost there.

The good news is that Asia has a lot of renewable energy resources. China and Australia have sun, wind and conventional and unconventional gas resources. The ASEAN states have geothermal, wind, biomass, hydropower, as well as natural gas. 

To develop this new energy, Asia needs new energy infrastructure — power lines, fiber optics, and natural gas transport — as soon as possible. 

If Asia takes this opportunity to create an interconnected, multi-lateral, multi-fuel energy delivery network, it could reap energy market efficiencies for a century or more. Such a system would — in effect — be a regional ‘Internet’ of energy. This delivery network would be comprised of high-capacity, High Voltage Direct Current electricity power lines, natural gas pipelines and fiber optic cables. All three exist, but the key is to bundle them. 

Consider the efficiencies. Aggregate energy demand would be met through aggregate supply and then balanced by frictionless transfer over the world’s largest grid.

With regional carbon pricing, solar and wind power would be distributed first. Uncorrelated regional intermittencies would largely cancel each other out. Aggregated short-duration residual imbalances (i.e. those lasting seconds) could be met through dispatching stored energy from utility-scale batteries and regional hydro assets. Longer intermittencies (those lasting minutes to hours, even days) could be met through rapid-start natural gas generation. Longer-term imbalances (weeks, for instance during heat waves) could be me with sidelined coal-fired power plants. 

The efficiencies of reconfiguring the grid to interconnect isolated national markets would be immense, as would the efficiencies of bundled power lines and gas pipelines. For instance, if power lines were congested, pipelines could deliver natural gas to local generation plants to create electricity. Conversely, if pipelines were full, electricity could be pulled from natural gas power plants located elsewhere in the system and delivered over power lines.

The "death of distance" in telecommunications enabled global supply chains to emerge, all in the past 20 years. In the next 20 years, the same efficiencies can be applied to the energy industry. Bits and pieces of a Pan-Asian energy infrastructure are already taking shape. Dozens of fiber optic cables now crisscross Asia, and more are being laid (see China Fiber Optic City, Palapa Ring (Indonesia), National Broadband Network (Australia)). Power lines and natural gas pipelines can be superimposed upon these networks.

New High Voltage Direct Current power lines enable long-distance transport of electricity.  China, meanwhile, is pioneering Ultra-High Voltage Direct Current (UHVDC) power lines. China has two UHVDC power lines in operation, and it has plans for dozens more, some spanning thousands of kilometers. China has also already built cross-border electricity links with neighboring Vietnam to increase trade in electricity. The Philippines has outsourced the operation and upgrade of its entire national electricity grid for the next 25 years to State Grid Corp of China. Meanwhile, State Grid recently bought a large share of South Australia’s electricity distributor Electranet. The Association of Southeast Asian States have developed plans to more deeply interconnect cross border natural gas pipeline networks and electricity grids. 

These plans add up to an emerging picture of a pan-regional energy network that could eventually create a seamless network stretching from Australia to Japan. What’s needed now is to recognize the pattern.  In the coming century, building efficient networks will be just as important as developing the clean energy sources upon which our future prosperity hinges. The time to construct this system is now. 

Lead image: Transmission sunset via Shutterstock

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Stewart is principal of Sydney, Australia-based Grenatec, a non-profit research organization studying the viability of a Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure.

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