China’s electric super highways open fast lane for global clean energy

China rang in the year with the announcement of a modern technological wonder: an ultra-high voltage power line stretching more than 2,000 miles from remote Xinjiang in the northwest to the doorstep of Shanghai in the east.

The 1.1 million volt line – more than double the capacity of high voltage US lines – is able to send as much power as 12 nuclear reactors across the distance of Nevada to New Jersey.

It’s a centrepiece of China’s ambition to revolutionise the global energy landscape with supergrids capable of pooling energy from remote locations – such as mountain wind farms and desert solar plants – and delivering it across hitherto unimaginable distances.

China’s stated goal is none other than to spearhead a global energy grid that may subdue climate change through stable provision of clean energy. Speaking to a 2016 energy conference in Houston, Liu Zhenya, the architect of China’s ultra-high voltage drive, outlined a vision of an intercontinental grid that by 2050 will bring renewable energy to “80 per cent of total consumption … completely solving the dilemma caused by fossil fuels”.

That may be an elusive dream, and one fraught with controversy amid accusations that Beijing is using infrastructure projects for an epic global power play. Yet China’s electric super highways are undoubtedly one of the most potent solutions for unlocking the full potential of renewable energy on a global scale, despite questions over financing and geopolitics.

While wind and solar power generations have grown exponentially amid global warming, the renewables industry features two drawbacks that hinder its rise to energy leadership. One is intermittent supply – wind generation is fickle and solar can be produced only in daytime. The other is high cost of delivery from far-flung generation points to densely-populated target markets. Ultra-high voltage supergrids can overcome both problems. Cheap and efficient transmission over a super-corridor is a game-changer in lowering cost of renewable energy provision. Meanwhile, intermittency becomes less problematic with the ability to tap renewables from multiple points – across time zones.

“Within any nation, region or continent, we’re seeing more of our resources coming from renewables either off-shore or further away from city centres, so we need UHV to find effective ways to deliver that,” says Gregory Reed, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Energy. He added that China is “significantly ahead” of any other country in implementing the technology.

The ultra-high voltage line that China recently announced can deliver 12 gigawatts of electricity – nine times more than standard alternating current high-voltage lines – at far lower cost. The technology makes it possible to harvest clean energy in one part of the world, when demand is low, and deliver it to another market at peak demand: “Wind at [its] highest concentration at night in Nordic countries doesn’t serve them very well, but that can be the beginning of the day in the United States,” says Reed.

China’s State Grid energy giant has signed an MOU with Japan’s SoftBank, Korea Electric Power and Russia’s Rosseti to develop a Northeast Asian supergrid linking these countries and Mongolia. There are hurdles such as cost – China’s 2,046-mile UHV power line alone cost $5.9 billion – and achieving trust among nations with a history of bitter rivalry. But it’s possible to anticipate a progressive evolution.

Crucially, speed and lower transmission costs should allow energy pioneers to recoup installation outlays: “If you’re talking a million volts, moving 12 gigawatts along a corridor, that makes it much more economically feasible,” says Reed, who is also director of the US Department of Energy’s Grid Power Collaborative.