Proposed Supergrid

China’s State Grid Envisions Global Wind-and-Sun Power Network

Chairman says network could be running by 2050; concern over vulnerabilities could weigh on interest

By 

BRIAN SPEGELE, The Wall Street Journal

March 30, 2016 10:42 a.m. ET

BEIJING—China’s State Grid Corp. already dominates its home market, operating most of the electricity grid that powers the world’s second-largest economy. Now it has big plans for the world: a $50 trillion global power network that harnesses Arctic winds and equatorial sunlight.

 

Liu Zhenya speaks at a conference in Houston on Feb. 25. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG NEWS

State Grid Chairman Liu Zhenya outlined his company’s vision Wednesday, saying a new global electricity network is the world’s best bet for overcoming resource scarcity, and limiting the effects of pollution and climate change. Knitted together by new, efficient, long-range transmission lines, the world grid, he said, could be running by 2050 and would tap advanced technology for renewable solar and wind resources.

“This is the right thing to do to benefit all the people of the world,” Mr. Liu said at a media briefing during an international symposium on the project.

 

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Unaddressed by Mr. Liu were who would pay for one of the biggest infrastructure projects ever attempted and whether foreign governments would trust a Chinese company to lead development of a critical utility. The $50 trillion estimated price is nearly twice the economic output of the U.S. and China combined. State Grid is using and developing long-range transmission technologies, making the project in some respects a buzz-generating marketing campaign for the company.

Doubts aside, State Grid’s vision has piqued the curiosity of the global energy sector. Among those who showed up at the conference State Grid organized to lay out its vision included Fatih Birol, head of the Paris-based International Energy Administration, andMasayoshi Son, the CEO of Japan conglomerate SoftBank GroupCorp.

Rather than far-fetched, the State Grid plan is straightforward and much of it is technically feasible, some experts said. “Most of its premises are fundamentally correct,” said David Sandalow, a former U.S. acting undersecretary of energy who has spoken with Mr. Liu about State Grid’s proposal and attended Wednesday’s conference

With advances in renewable power and transmission technology, the world will soon be able to tap electricity from huge solar power bases around the equator and wind stations in the Arctic, State Grid says, equaling potentially thousands of terawatt-hours a year. Global electricity generation totaled more than 20,000 terawatt-hours annually in recent years.

Special high-efficiency power lines would then transmit the electricity to users in Asia, Europe, North America and elsewhere. While the full system wouldn't enter service until 2050 at the earliest, State Grid wants to begin pilot projects likely in the Asia region in the decade or so to come.

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The major barriers to success “are institutional, not technical,” said Mr. Sandalow, the former U.S. energy official who is currently a fellow at Columbia University. “It’s an open question whether national governments will be open to such a revolutionary idea.”

Among those hurdles are the national security questions surrounding the tethering of one country’s power grid with others’. Growing concern globally over the vulnerability of grids to cyberattacks could weigh on building such a network across national borders. The Obama administration has been among those boosting grid defenses out of vulnerability concerns.

Mr. Liu told reporters at a news briefing that the allure of tapping clean new power supplies would trump potential pitfalls. He compared the task to developing the world-wide web. Like that effort, “constructing a global energy network will also have political problems,” he said. “But this is the right direction.”

The proposal by State Grid fits with China’s long-standing obsessions with grand engineering projects, from the Great Wall to the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges Dam. The Communist Party in recent years has used such feats as symbols of its authority and as ways to boost innovation and expertise in key strategic sectors.

State Grid, the world’s largest power utility with nearly two million employees and more than $300 billion in annual operating revenue, is experienced in negotiating international markets. It has scooped up stakes in power assets in Brazil, Italy and elsewhere in recent years.

In some respects, State Grid is looking to take global what it is already starting to achieve in China. At the heart of a world grid would be “ultrahigh voltage” power transmission technology to move electricity over long distances from remote power bases to cities around the world.

Seven such long-range lines have already been built by State Grid, with an additional 10 being rolled out. Energy experts said the relative success of those programs help demonstrate the feasibility of ambitious cross-border projects.

State Grid proposes a three-phase plan for the global energy network. In the near term, the focus will be on long-range interconnection domestically and on developing battery and other technology needed for better transmission of renewable power resources.

Then, over subsequent decades, China’s grid would be connected with others, starting with northeast Asian neighbors like Mongolia and South Korea. Construction of the huge solar power bases and Arctic wind farms, as well as long-range power lines to demand centers, would follow.