In vision and scale, the idea is mind-boggling: In response to an expected doubling of global demand for electricity over the next generation, China is proposing a super-grid — a grand, world-spanning, cross-border, centrally managed network of power generation. By 2070, it would deliver green-generated electricity to 80 countries, from the United States to Southeast Asia to Russia, Kuwait, Nigeria, and all points in between. The electricity would be moved across advanced power lines operating at an ultra-high 800 kilovolts, providing the umph to push the power thousands of miles while losing little capacity along the way. At strategic intersections and terminuses, the electricity would be channeled into gigantic stationary batteries for ladling off to customers when they need it.
Called the Global Energy Interconnection, or GEI, the super-grid would serve booming places that simply don’t have enough power, and places without any electricity. In doing so, it would help to fulfill a big piece of Belt and Road, through which Beijing hopes to link the global economy back to China, and achieve the same geopolitical power that the U.S. has through its control of commercial sea lanes, and that the 19th-century British did with its own fleet.
But GEI is not likely to be built, at least not in the time frame that China is thinking. The reasons are laid out in a paper last year by Edmund Downie, a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. They include the absurdist politics of stringing lines from Russia to the United States across the Bering Strait, across the Middle East, and so on. That current thinking supports micro-grids — small, neighborhood-size power-production equipment — as the best, most efficient way to serve parts of the world without sufficient electricity. And finally, the probability that, once lines are strung, what is to stop line managers from shipping not solar or wind power, but coal-fired electricity, which would defeat one of the central, stated purposes of the project?
This is not an ideal outcome. Since 2006, China has made itself the world expert on ultra-high voltage transmission of electricity. It has built 28 lines so far and has more on the drawing board. AC lines carry the power just a few hundred miles; DC lines can go further: A 2,046-mile line from Xinjiang to Anhui province, for instance, cost $5.9 billion and has the capacity to power 50 million homes. If a global system comprised of such lines were to be built, China would be the primary beneficiary of projects worth trillions of dollars in all.
But even at home, the technology is not quite working out. A primary problem is that a number of the lines have gone largely unused, according to David Fishman, a China-based researcher for the Lantau Group, an economic consulting firm. For instance, 10 lines were built in central China with a capacity of 520 tWh, but they have operated at only 40% capacity or 207 tWh. The main reason is that local governments prioritize locally produced coal-fired generation, and don’t want the imported power.
Another reason for slowing demand for the lines is China’s lower growth. In the last quarter, it grew at a 6.5% annual clip, lower than the former double-digit rates. Such prospects have made the country much more conservative about its grandest projects, Fishman told me by phone. Where formerly big-ticket projects could be built in the confidence that the more robust economy would absorb them in five or eight years, now Chinese planners are more likely to wait to see demand. “China will be a little less bullish,” said Fishman, who has just released this white paper on the power lines. “You’re going to see more of [the ultra-high voltage lines], but more strategically chosen and built when needed.”
While bad news for those in the ultra-high voltage business, it’s not for stationary batteries. One answer to the problems facing the lines is to store the electricity for later use by local businesses and homes. Look for an uptick in such business.