Northeast Asia, the region encompassing China, South Korea, and Japan, has not yet gotten around to connecting its electricity grids together. But that’s not stopping these countries from promoting the Asia Super Grid, calculated to become the center of a global energy grid providing abundant, cheap electricity based on renewable energy.
In Japan, the idea emerged following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster. The possibility of a nuclear disaster so shocked Masayoshi Son, founder and head of the telecom and Internet giant SoftBank Group, that he established the Renewable Energy Institute soon after to help develop and promote renewable energy.
“I was a total layman (in renewable energy) at the time of the earthquake,” Son told a packed audience attending a symposium celebrating the fifth anniversary of the institute in Tokyo last Friday.
Yet it was this naïveté that led the entrepreneur to go on and propose the Asia Super Grid to tap wind and solar energy in the Gobi Desert, estimated to be the equivalent of thousands of nuclear reactors. “People said it was crazy, too grand a scheme…politically impossible,” he added.
Nonetheless, entrepreneur Son found kindred spirits in South Korea’s state-owned Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO) and more recently in the State Grid Corporation of China and the Russian power company PSJC Rosseti. At an international conference on global energy interconnection in Beijing this March, the four entities signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to work together on interconnecting power grids to form the Asia Super Grid.
The idea gained further momentum with the establishment in Beijing in March of the nonprofit Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization. GEIDCO is led by Liu Zhenya, former chairman of State Grid. Members include the four Asia Super Grid signatories, as well as utilities, universities, and equipment manufacturers from 14 countries.
GEIDCO’s declared goal is to link the world’s electric grids to meet global power needs by generating electricity from renewables. At Friday’s symposium in Tokyo, Zhenya outlined this vision, saying global energy interconnection (GEI) based on clean energy was the only feasible answer to issues of resource constraints, environmental pollution, and climate change.
The challenge for GEI, he noted, was connecting the world’s alternative energy resources of wind, hydro, and solar to the areas of demand. Such energy sources, he pointed out, are available in a band arcing from North Africa through central Asia to eastern Russia and North Asia. But the closest areas of demand are in Europe, southern Africa, and East and Southeast Asia.
And because “wind and solar power are random, intermittent, and volatile,” noted Zhenya, “only by integrating them into a vast power grid can they enjoy better development.”
He describes GEI as a globally interconnected smart grid using UHV grids as the backbone, with an infrastructure platform on which clean energy can be developed, transmitted, and used worldwide.
The backbone will transmit electricity “at more than 1,000 kilovolts AC and 800 kilovolts DC over thousands of kilometers and interconnect grids across regions, nations, and even continents with a capacity of over 10 gigawatts,” he explained. Nine such grids are already in operation or being constructed in China, he added, so there are no longer any problems concerning the key technologies for GEI.
Meanwhile, the price of wind- and solar-generated power is falling rapidly. Zhenya said recent PV bid prices for projects in the United Arab Emirates and Chile were as low as 3 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. Consequently, “according to our calculations, the cost efficiency (of wind and solar generation) will be more than fossil fuel energy by 2025,” he predicted.
Though some key technology hurdles may be toppling, the political challenges in hooking up the world’s grids may prove more difficult to overcome. Japan, for instance, is involved in serious territorial disputes concerning ownership of islands between China and Japan and between Korea and Japan.
Such friction only heightens concerns over energy security for everyone. It's also a reminder that in 2014, for political reasons, Russia hiked gas prices in Ukraine, then cut off supplies to east Ukraine over price disputes, an action which threatened to involve some countries in the European Union.
And while Zhenya may be able to minimize technology challenges in regions where new grids and interconnects can be installed straightforwardly, that is not the case with near-neighbor Japan. Because of historical reasons, Japan is divided into two when it comes to electric generation. The western region uses a 60-hertz system; the east runs on 50 Hz.
“After one hundred years, there is no way we can change this,” said Ryuichi Yokoyama, professor emeritus of Waseda University, in Tokyo, who spoke at a workshop associated with the Tokyo symposium. “We are divided into two zones, which is unprecedented in the world.”
Nor does it help matters that the frequency conversion links between the two systems have a total capacity of a measly 1.2 gigawatts, which is due for a modest hike to 2.1 GW in 2020.
What’s more, Japan has 10 independent power generation companies whose grid tie-line capacities vary greatly. For instance, the tie line between the northern island of Hokkaido where wind generation potential is highest (and where an interconnect cable link to Russia’s grid would likely be installed), and the main island of Honshu has a capacity of a mere 0.66 GW. A second tie line to begin operation in 2019 will raise overall capacity only fractionally to 0.9 GW.
“So nationwide operation is merely a dream,” said Yokoyama.
Nevertheless, Son and Zhenya remain undaunted. In July, the SoftBank Group, KEPCO, and Mongolian investment company Newcom LLC signed an MoU to invest and develop in renewable energy projects in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. In the same month, GEIDCO signed an MoU with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to jointly conduct research and planning on Asia power grid interconnections.
The next step, said Zhenya, is to study the technology challenges involved with developing and laying submarine cables to speed up implementation of Northeast Asia interconnections.
Zhenya ended his talk in Tokyo on an upbeat note, saying that with wisdom and an open mind, GEI can be achieved by 2050 as the way to transition to sustainable, low-carbon energy that will benefit everyone.