energy globalisation

How big do you want your power grid?

Earlier this year the green light was given to what will eventually be the world’s largest solar farm. There are regulatory and funding obstacles to overcome yet, but if all goes to plan the Sun Cable project will see 10 gigawatts of solar panels installed in the Australian desert.

To put that in context, Britain’s Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor will deliver 3.2 GW of power when/if it comes online in 2025. So this would be three times the capacity of Hinkley, even though it will cost less to build. It will blow the record for the largest solar farm out of the water, at six times bigger than the current holder, China’s Tengger Desert solar park. And with 30 Gwh of storage – again destroying the record for the largest storage battery – it will provide power 24 hours a day.

But here’s the most interesting bit, in my opinion: the power is ultimately destined for Singapore, 4,500 miles away. At full capacity, the desert sun of Australia will be able to deliver 20% of Singapore’s electricity.

This is perhaps the most ambitious attempt to sell electricity by long distance, and it might go some way to redressing Australia’s role as a coal-exporting climate pariah.

It’s not the only international power exchange though. Britain has a number of international grid connections, to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland, with plans to connect Norway and Denmark, possibly Iceland. The broader you throw the net, the easier it is to balance intermittent renewable energy sources and even out peaks and troughs.

There are some places with a natural advantage in energy, as Australia has with solar power. Iceland has far more potential geothermal power than it will ever need, and it can’t do anything with it unless it has a route to market. Norway and Denmark have wind power to share, and so does Scotland. Mozambique runs surplus hydropower almost a thousand miles to South Africa. It’s not renewable, but Sweden is a net exporter of nuclear power, selling to its Scandinavian neighbours and south to Germany. Interconnectors open up new possibilities for buying and selling renewable energy, and a healthy market for clean energy encourages investment.

I’d not given them much thought before, but David Elliott discusses supergrids in his book Renewable Energy. There are a variety of possible future schemes, including a European supergrid, or the idea of running solar power into Europe from North Africa. After the Fukushima incident, Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son hatched a scheme for a pan-Asia grid. It would run from India to China to Japan, and allow renewable energy from the Gobi desert to be sold as far south as Malaysia or the Philippines.

China has even discussed the possibility of – eventually – having a global grid. And as Elliott describes, that would allow “solar power from the sunlit side of the planet to be used by those on the night side, the ultimate in balancing options.”

Elliott cautions that while there are many advantages to these superconnector plans, they do have social justice implications. It is easy to imagine clean energy from North Africa all flowing north into an already overconsuming Europe, while millions to the south lack access to even a basic electricity supply. If supergrids become reality, there will be places that are unable to take part, separated by mountain ranges or just too remote. That could further disadvantage already marginalised parts of the world.

There are geopolitical complexities to consider. As Europe has already experienced with its gas grid and supplies from Russia, more than one kind of power can flow through those connections. Equally, the ties that come from shared energy networks will depend on and also encourage closer cooperation between countries and their neighbours.

And yes, there are aesthetic considerations too. Nobody likes pylons marching across the landscape, something we have enough of where I am in Bedfordshire. It is possible and more efficient to bury them underground, but it is more expensive and complicated.

Of course, not everywhere needs a global grid connection point. For many rural areas, there are better solutions in more localised supply, micro-grids or entirely self-sufficient storage-based systems. The energy transition is by no means one size fits all.

Will we ever get a global grid? I think it’s unlikely. Will we see wider grids and a growing number of international connections in future? Almost certainly, and we should be alert to both the positives and the negatives.

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