Spectrum: China’s Ambitious Plan to Build the World’s Biggest Supergrid

Wind rips across an isolated utility station in northwestern China’s desolate Gansu Corridor. More than 2,000 years ago, Silk Road traders from Central Asia and Europe crossed this arid, narrow plain, threading between forbidding mountains to the south and the Gobi Desert to the north, bearing precious cargo bound for Imperial Beijing. Today the corridor carries a distinctly modern commodity: gigawatts of electricity destined for the megacities of eastern China. One waypoint on that journey is this ultrahigh-voltage converter station outside the city of Jiuquan, in Gansu province.

Electricity from the region’s wind turbines, solar farms, and coal-fired power plants arrives at the station as alternating current. Two dozen 500-metric-ton transformers feed the AC into a cavernous hall, where AC-DC converter circuits hang from the 28-meter-high ceiling, emitting a penetrating, incessant buzz. Within each circuit, solid-state switches known as thyristors chew up the AC and spit it out as DC flowing at 800 kilovolts.

From here, the transmission line traverses three more provinces before terminating at a sister station in Hunan province, more than 2,300 kilometers away. There, the DC is converted back to AC, to be fed onto the regional power grid. The sheer scale of the new line and the advanced grid technology that’s been developed to support it dwarf anything going on in pretty much any other country. And yet, here in China, it’s just one of 22 such ultrahigh-voltage megaprojects that grid operators have built over the past decade.

The result is an emerging nationwide supergrid that will rectify the huge geographic mismatch between where China produces its cleanest power — in the north and west — and where power is consumed in the densely populated east. Moving energy via this supergrid will be crucial to maximizing China’s use of renewable energy and slashing reliance on coal.

Read on at IEEE Spectrum

Supergrid Technology Beats Expectations

HVDC breaker Source AlstomAn industrial research consortium that is a who’s-who of the European power industry says development of technologies to produce high-voltage DC (HVDC) supergrids accelerated in 2012 — “surpassing expectations.” The assessment comes in the supergrids technology roadmap updated earlier this month by Friends of the Supergrid, whose members include power equipment suppliers such as Siemens, ABB and Alstom, as well as transmission system operators and renewable energy developers.

Summarizing the conclusions of an expert group within the International Council on Large Electric Systems — better known as CIGRE, its French acroynm — the Friends of the Supergrid says there is now no doubt as to the feasibility of HVDC networks ferrying renewable energy resources from wherever they are in surplus to wherever they are needed: “CIGRE Working Group B4–52 considered this question, specifically whether it was technically and economically feasible to build a DC Grid, and the answer was yes.” Continue reading “Supergrid Technology Beats Expectations”

Mideast Morass Dims Mediterranean Solar Hopes

abbas-sarkozy-and-olmert-at-paris-summit-credit-l-blevennec-elysee-photo-servicePlanning for massive development of North Africa’s solar energy potential became “collateral damage” of the war in Gaza this winter and won’t restart for at least another month, according to French newspaper Le Monde (article en Français).

The 43 countries of the Union for the Mediterranean, which includes Muslim nations such as Egypt and Algeria as well as Israel, adopted solar energy as its keynote project last summer. And last fall the European Commission endorsed the need for a high voltage DC supergrid to share the resulting clean energy with Europe. Planning froze in late December, however, after Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza in response to rocket fire.

Participation of Muslim countries in a development partnership with Israel — a coup for French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he launched the Union for the Mediterranean last summer — became politically untenable as Gaza crumbled.

Continue reading “Mideast Morass Dims Mediterranean Solar Hopes”

Saying Adieu to the Mighty UCTE

By summer the Union for the Co-ordination of Transmission of Electricity (UCTE), whose 240,000 kilometers of high-voltage lines connect 26 European countries, may cease to exist. Europe is not giving up electricity. Electrons will still flow on the world’s largest interconnection of power grids. Rather, the 57-year-old UCTE will be subsumed within a new and broader organization designed to, among other improvements, make Europe’s grids renewables-ready: the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E).

CEOs from 42 transmission system operator companies in 34 European countries unanimously decided to create the new association last month. Whereas UCTE was limited to ensuring the interoperability of largely self-sufficient national grids, ENTSO-E is to play a proactive role in coordinating grid development to create a truly European grid that can operate on a larger scale. This is exactly what’s needed as Europe increasingly seeks to widely distribute electricity generated from concentrated renewable resources such as wind power in the North Sea and Baltic Sea and Mediterranean solar power.

Moving power across regions implies a European-scale supergrid, while the European Commission (EC) has struggled simply to add small interconnections between the states. Last month for Spectrum Online I profiled the EC’s latest desperate attempt to overcoming inertia in transmission expansion: recruiting high-profile volunteers to sell the interconnections.

One of those volunteers, Władysław Mielczarski, the Polish electric power engineering expert whom the EC recruited to unstick projects connecting Poland to Lithuania and Germany, minced no words in describing his best efforts to get things as no substitute for European institutions dedicated to grid planning. “If we’re going to do a professional job on interconnection,” said Mielczarski, “we must have professional people working full time, and we must have more support from the commission.”

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Nukes, Gas, Oil and Coal All Losers in EU Energy Strategy

The European Commission issued its Strategic Energy Review yesterday, proposing energy efficiency investments, a shift to alternative fuel vehicles to end oil dependence in transport, and more aggressive deployment of renewable energy and carbon capture and storage to “decarbonise” the EU electricity supply. Figuring prominantly among its first six “priorities essential for the EU’s energy security” are the North Sea offshore electric power supergrid that Energywise covered in September and the Mediterranean Ring electric interconnection of Europe and North Africa that I’ve been harping on this week. 

The EC energy strategy not only endorses the MedRing, but views it as a component of a future supergrid traversing Europe and stretching beyond the Mediterranean to Iraq, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

How would this new vision (and $100/barrel oil) alter the complexion of European energy consumption? The energy review projects that by 2020 total energy demand drops from the equivalent of 1811 metric tons of oil in 2005 to 1672 MTOE in 2020. Demand met by renewables such as wind, solar and hydro more than doubles in real terms from 123 to 274 MTOE, while their share of total demand leaps from 6.8% to 16.4%. Imported renewables – with the MedRing delivering North African wind and solar power – jump 10-fold from 0.8% in 2005 to 8.8% in 2020.

Oil, gas, coal and nuclear, meanwhile, all see a diminished role, both in real terms and as a share of European energy demand. Interestingly the role of natural gas – the low-carbon fossil fuel – drops the most, from 25% to 21%, reflecting EU concern over dependence on gas imports from Russia. Nuclear’s share drops the least, from just slightly over to slightly under 14% of demand; this assumes that nuclear phaseout plans, particularly Germany’s, are followed through. 

How to make it all come true? Accompanying the EC review is a ‘green paper‘ (the EU’s unbleached alternative terminology for what we’d call a ‘white paper’) outlining a variety of new regulatory and financial mechanisms. The EU is already a world leader in terms of incentives for lower carbon energy with strong price supports for solar and wind and a carbon cap and trade program up and running (though still lacking teeth as my Energywise colleague Bill Sweet notes). However, the energy review warns that the primarily national-level financing that drives energy projects today are inadequate to drive infrastructure that is pan-European or larger. A perfect example is the massive investment in high-voltage dc lines needed to turn the MedRing into a bulk power mover (see the second half of our feature on MedRing: “Closing the Circuit”). 

Even less viable under existing financing mechanisms are those projects that entail considerable “non-commercial risks” such as threats of political instability or terrorism. Did someone say North Africa?

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This post was created for EnergywiseIEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate