Rethinking the Future of Sustainability: The Power of a Global Super Grid


Our forebearers have been integrating the electricity and extending the electric supply grid ever since the installation of the first public lighting by the Godalming Borough Lighting Committee in 1881 shortly followed by the first demonstration facility of transmission of direct current electrical energy by Miesbach-Munich Power Transmission in 1882 over a 57-km distance.

In 1938, Buckminster Fuller envisioned a global electrical energy grid that would allow the integration of renewable resources located in different locations to meet the energy needs of the world. In 1960, Buckminster saw that the energy needs could be transferred cost effectively at a distance of about 1,500 miles. In the traditional Dymaxion Map in folded form, he showed the world to be one huge island contained in one world ocean. In his view, an electric grid that connected everybody would alleviate international disputes and the new economic basis wouldn’t be gold or dollars, but rather kilowatt-hours. In the late 1950s, the Gotland HVDC project was a first, and saw the deployment of a 90-km submarine cable transporting 20 MW. Over time, HVDC technology has improved, and now it is used for interconnecting power grids.

Possibilities and Challenges

Building thousands of kilometres of cables between locations where energy can be delivered to where it is most needed could provide humanity with clean and cheap power. Although renewable energy, such as solar and wind, is intermittent at a specific location, when looked at on a global scale, it can offer a secure and stable source of electricity. It has been proven when comparing HVDC to HVAC; over a specific distance, HVDC systems become cheaper than HVAC (see fig. below), saving the operator money over its lifetime, as it is more efficient and reduces losses. 

Significant Progress Has Been Already Made and More on The Way

Europe already has interconnection in place with a unified energy policy, with the EC setting a target of 10 percent electricity interconnection by 2020, which means every EU country should have electricity cables that allow at least 10 percent of electricity it produces to be transported across its borders to neighboring countries.

Many other projects around the globe are planned and are in various stages of implementation. However, funding and the political climate play a critical role in when and how quickly these projects will move forward.

In the U.S., significant work has been done, with project initiatives such as

The Tres Amigas (TA) Transmission Superstation that use HVDC technology to link the Eastern, Western, and Texas U.S. interconnections at a single location via a multi terminal interconnection. There are also plans to build the largest electric infrastructure project in the U.S., a 720-mile long HVDC transmission line connecting the Oklahoma Panhandle region to Tennessee at a total investment of $2.5 billion. However, implementation is not so straight forward, it requires significant budget and approvals.

China has used HVDC since the late 1980s. Since 2010, UHVDC has expanded fast, with the completion of a number of interconnections. The Zhundong-Sichuan project has the largest capacity and the Jinping-Sunan project was completed in 2013 — the latter being the world’s largest and longest UHVDC project, carrying 7,200 MW over 2093 km from hydroelectric plants on the Yalong river in Sichuan province to Jiangsu province on the coast.

Other connections are being planned, such as China’s monopolistic electricity utility State Grid winning a 2015 contract to build a 2,500 km line in Brazil. The project is targeted to run from the Belo Monte hydropower plant on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, to Rio de Janeiro with a series of controversial discussions.

Having unevenly distributed energy resources (coal in Central India, hydro in North Eastern & Northern Himalayan region), India is making significant progress and investments. Powergrid is installing a 6000-MW HVDC multi-terminal system approximately 1728 km in length from North Eastern Region to Agra. Alstom awarded the HVDC turnkey project in India to built 3,000 MW from Champa in central India to Kurukshetra in northern India, using 800 kV UHVDC technology.

Due to the high potential for renewable energy in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, cross-border transmission lines should connect the Gobi Desert with Irkutsk in the north Shanghai and Seoul in the south and Tokyo in the east of the ASG region according to the 2014 Gobitec report.

Super grids enable resources to be shared in a spatial and temporal diversification due to different time zones and seasonal differences, where peak electricity demand occurs differently (e.g., Japan has peak in summer, South Korea in winter time). By connecting several countries with one grid, the demand-supply balance could be easily reached.

Global Super-grid and Sustainability

In an ideal world, where a global super grid moves energy around the planet, sustainable goals (SDGs) could be achieved, providing everyone access to modern energy services that support economic growth (SDG1: No poverty); with potential implications of food production (SDG2: Zero Hunger ); standards of life and support for medical facilities (SDG3: Good health and wellbeing ) and education (SDG4: Quality education).  

SDG9: Industry. Innovation and Infrastructure recognizes that to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation we need to develop changes in infrastructure (e.g. building new interconnection to provide energy for everyone); promote technologies for sustainability industrialization; integrate financial services into markets for sustainable industrialization, promote energy policies to implement energy efficient solutions and invest in energy research programs.

Implementation of a global super grid where renewables are used in high proportion, will require making significant investment in terms of infrastructure and policy requirements. This comes with its own sets of challenges related to regulations, politics and finance. Some of these include maintenance and management of a large energy flow and cooperation at a global level. Increased cross-border cooperation and more active negotiations between differing regions, could help better shape the current geopolitical landscape. Despite the challenges, a ‘Global Super Grid’ concept might ultimately prove to become a practical route to a cleaner future.

I will be discussing this topic at the upcoming IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership conference May 22-23, 2017 in San Jose, Calif. Join me for a detailed discussion of the future of super grids. 

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Dr Catalina Spataru is a Lecturer in Energy Systems and Networks, Director of the MRes Course EDS at UCL in London. Her expertise is in energy systems modeling with great interest in coupling energy markets and resource nexus. She is the regional representative of the IEEE Women in Power (Region 8 – Europe), acting as scientific chair in international conferences in energy.

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