Could UHVDC be a “killer app” for solving climate change?

Recently I got asked by Reuters to comment on Obama’s energy plan. Here’s a quote from Scientific American:

Obama said his budget proposal to be released on Thursday will invest $15 billion a year on wind and solar power, advanced biofuels, clean coal and American-built cars and trucks that are more fuel efficient.

He also said thousands of miles of power lines would be built to carry new energy to cities and towns.

Obama is quite right to be directing concerted investment in renewable energy and transmission infrastructure, to bring these new wind and solar power sources from where it is generated to where it is used,” said Barry Brook of the University of Adelaide, in South Australia state.

But Brook said while putting a price on carbon was necessary, it was not enough.

Will the world’s future energy mix be entirely renewable, and is it appropriate to frame energy alternatives in narrow terms? I think not,” said Brook, director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability in Adelaide.

Also here and here (for other quotes). Incidentally, they left off my last line for space reasons, which actually talked about additional needs beyond renewables (i.e., advanced nuclear power).

A few weeks before, I’d also said this:

In South Australia, for instance, the grid needs to be overhauled to allow proposed wind farms along the coast to be connected.

The state’s north also has large potential for geothermal power generation but a lack of transmission lines to carry the power to New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland states has hobbled major investment.

“One of the best examples I can think of is to connect transmission lines from Queensland, South Australia to the East Coast grid interconnector and even the East Coast to the West over the Nullarbor Plain,” said Barry Brook, director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide.

By doing that you have provided a link by which a whole bunch of renewables can come on to the grid where it can’t right now, and that it is one of the major limitations for investment,” Brook said, calling also for greater focus on energy efficiency. 

In this context about grid infrastructure, the guest post below is relevant. It’s written by a friend of mine, Stewart Taggart. Sure, he loves to crank up the hyperbole (heck, he’s an American, what do you expect?), but he’s got some great ideas, some of which might actually turn into reality. The value of UHVDC tranmission infrastructure is potentially huge — for both worldwide grid unification and load balancing and for getting power from remote sites (e.g., for desert-based solar thermal plants and offshore wind) to high demand areas, OR to remote areas (e.g., for piping power from Integral Fast Reactors from nuclear club countries to developing or ‘unstable’ nations who might not have access to nuclear power for a variety of technical or political reasons).

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Stewart Taggart is a director of Acquasol Infrastructure Ltd., a developer of environmentally-friendly power and water solutions building a municipal-scale solar desalination plant in South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf. Stewart (or Taggart, depending on your style) is also founder/administrator of DESERTEC-Australia, DESERTEC-USA and DESERTEC-China. DESERTEC promotes the concept of “Clean Power From Deserts.

It’s the grid’s equivalent of Internet broadband.

Known as Ultra-High Voltage Direct Current (UHVDC), UHVDC could end of the ”tyranny of distance’ in electricity transmission. The positive global implications are hard to overstate.

Development and deployment of UHVDC could mean geothermal, wind, concentrating solar power and other clean energy sources are no longer hobbled by distance from existing transmission infrastructure.

In the short term, UHVDC could mean lower greenhouse gas emissions. In the medium term, UHVDC could mean increased cross-border trading in electricity, lowering prices and increasing grid reliability. Over the long term, UHVDC could increase global political stability by deepening multilateral energy interdependency.

UHVDC combines two existing ‘off-the-shelf’ efficiencies and combines them. The first is direct current (DC) power. DC transmits electricity over long dstances more efficiently than alternating current (the kind used by consumer devices). The second is high voltage. By pumping up voltage, more electricity can be transmitted across a given line.

The current leading edge of UHVDC development represents just an incremental step forward, raising new cable capacity (to be deployed in China) to 8,000MW and 800kv from previous maximums of 6,000MW and 500kv. Already, some envisage 10,000MW UHVDC cables being developed to service proposed North Sea wind farms.

Rising global per capita energy usage, the integration of China and India to the global economy, aging current global electricity transmission infrastructure and the need to combat climate change all point to increasing UHVDC deployment in coming years.

The good news is that this is happening at a time when the world electricity system needs a major upgrade. Nearly US$30 trillion must be spent on energy infrastructure globally before 2030 to avoid chronic blackouts, according to the International Energy Agency. The lion’s share of that money will go to generation and transmission infrastructure, the IEA estimates.

China is staking a claim to leadership in UHVDC power. The Chinese government is laying huge (6,000MW), long distance (2,000 kilometer) UHVDC power lines from country’s western hinterlands, where hydro and solar resources exist, to its eastern cities. Bigger UHVDC cables (8,000MW) are expected soon. Having China develop this technology could ultimately represent a gift of China to the world as significant as China’s previous contributions: paper, gunpowder and the compass.

China has plans to lay dozens of UHVDC power lines from west to east. This will catalyse the UHVDC industry and the rest of the world should watch with approval and encourage China. If China develops a competitve UHVDC industry, China’s economy will be able to satisfy more of its internal electricity needs from cleaner sources of electricity than coal.

But best of all, China’s development of a UHVDC industry could hasten the day when a ‘Pan-Asian Energy Superhighway‘ could be built connecting China and Australia. Such an energy highway would encourage development of large scale renewable resources in the Asian region, increasing cross-border trade in ‘green’ energy and deepening multilateral energy dependency, thereby enhancing geopolitical stability.

Encouraging China to develop a global-competitive UHVDC industry will be immensely positive for the world. No other country can afford it at this time. Meanwhile, China’s own huge infrastructure needs make such investment largely unavoidable.

If China builds up a UHVDC industry while the west concentrates on economic reform and reconstruction following the credit crisis, everyone comes out ahead. That’s because large-scale cross-border investments in UHVDC power lines could be considered sometime after 2015. This in turn would spark a virtuous global cycle of increased development of renewable energy, lower electricity costs and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Keep an eye on Chinese UHVDC. It could end up as the 21st Century’s “killer application” when it comes to combating climate change.

Additional Reading:

China:
China’s State Grid eyes to triple UHV lines by 2012
China Moves Ahead with Economical Ultra-High Voltage Transmission Lines
Chinese Utility Tries to Join Electricity Pioneers
State Grid To Invest $38 Billion In ’09; Growth To Slow Sharply
Energy efficient Ultra High Voltage: the future of electricity transmission
Ultra High Voltage DC Systems
Central China Shanxi Province to Invest $3.2 Billion in Power Sector in 2009

United States:
Locating lines to transmit energy vexes officials

Europe:
RWE Founds New Unit To Run Ultra-High Voltage Grid
KEMA stud calls for 10000MW cables to be developed for North Sea and European offshore networks

Australia:
DESERTEC-Australia: HVDC Power Lines
DESERTEC-Austraila: Connecting to Asia

DESERTEC promotes development of solar and other renewable energy resources from desert regions. Please visit our various websites:
DESERTEC-USA
DESERTEC-Australia
DESERTEC-China
DESERTEC-Europe
DESERTEC-UK
DESERTEC-India

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21 Comments

  1. Improvements in HVDC is heartening. The capacity to join grids on different continents is something I’ve speculated about, on this blog and elsewhere. I’m pleased to learn that others are doing more than speculate and the technology is developing to the point where it is technically feasible. Solar farms in OZ really could be supplying the world’s industrial regions with power, if we ever have a Gov’t with the vision and determination to push it through. Unfortunately on current form they are more likely to stay “loyal” to the coal industry and prefer to spend development budgets on mythical clean coal solutions.

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  2. I presume that’s for overhead, not underground. The problem is with the scenic amenity that is destroyed. While wind farms can be ugly in the wrong place (personally I find them elegant), linear infrastructure is never a pleasant addition to a view, particularly along the coast where the windfarms so often are. Victoria has gotten into a lot of trouble with simple short HV power lines, for Basslink and the desal plant. I can see major issues stringing up more pylons anywhere vaguely habitable, and fair enough too, I wouldn’t want my view ruined.

    Across the Nullarbor, and out to Geodynamics, connecting up all of the existing bits of Australia, I’m sure we could manage, but big new lines to windy bits of the coast, and across to Darwin to go to Indonesia – nah I don’t think so.

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  3. There is a new world wide web emerging right before our eyes.

    It is a global energy network and, like the internet, it will change our culture, society and how we do business. More importantly, it will alter how we use, transform and exchange energy.

    Enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year.

    There is no energy supply problem, there is an energy distribution problem — and the emerging solution is a new world wide web of electricity.

    For more information, see http://www.terrawatts.com

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  4. Robert, it could easily be argued that a global response to climate change and emissions isn’t geopolitically feasible. We have to make the attempt all the same. A global grid may have security vulnerabilities but could prove essential to solving the underlying inequalities that feed global instability that result in security risks to major infrastructure. For many of the poverty stricken, desert regions of the world, renewable energy could well be the only commodity they have in abundance.

    Barry, I’m not sure I’d want projects to link Australian and Asian electricity grids to be dependent upon natural gas pipelines (a key component of Desertec proposals). Gas may be less CO2 intensive than coal but it’s still a GHG emitter and if it’s not actually taking the place of coal, but is in addition to coal, it’s entrenching yet more dependence on fossil fuels. Except as a transitionary technology – being backup for intermittent renewables until the grid and/or large scale storage are up to the task – turning to gas isn’t a great leap forward.

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  5. Ken#9: If you could magically swap all coal burning for gas, what would happen? CO2 emissions would drop, but so would the negative forcing due to sulphate aerosols. I can’t reference a source – it’s in a PNAS paper somewhere but I can’t find it (and the margin of this blog is too small for me to prove it directly :)) — but the net forcing would RISE.

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  6. Readers who see large UHVDC networks as an exercise in switching fuels are missing the point. One purpose of large, high-efficiency grids is to help level the peaks and valleys of high and low demand across multiple time zones.

    Electricity demand is time-sensitive. As each time zone reaches peak demand, thousands of power plants are turned on and then off to help meet that demand (which also waste a significant amount of energy starting and stopping). It is cheaper (and faster) to move surplus power between time zones than it is to bring new generation online in each time zone and that requires a smart grid that crosses those time zones (not to mention seasonal variations between northern and southern latitudes).

    For example, courtesy of John Petersen at Seeking Alpha:

    “The nameplate capacity of U.S. generating facilities is about 1 million Megawatts (MW), so if all of our power plants ran 24/7 we would have a theoretical annual generating capacity of 8.7 billion Megawatt-hours (MWh). Since demand for electricity fluctuates on both a daily and seasonal basis, total electric power generation in 2007 was only 4.2 billion MWh, or less than 50% of nameplate capacity. The goal of the Smart Grid is to maximize the efficiency of existing generating facilities and accommodate the integration of renewable power resources.”
    http://seekingalpha.com/article/119404-smart-grid-s-enabler-alternative-energy-storage

    One problem with wind, solar, geothermal, etc. is that these technologies are not “dispatchable” (cannot be turned on as needed); their output is intermittent. So, the larger the transmission grid or marketplace is for this non-dispatchable power, the more likely it will find its true value and become cost-efficient — and reliable.

    In this way, the emerging global energy grid will enable us to wean ourselves off carbon-based power generation all together.

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  7. Ken, I agree absolutely that natural (fossil) gas is out — any renewable energy plan that relies on this, even for peaking power (beyond a decade or so), is insufficient if the goal is zero carbon ASAP (which is the most scientifically reasonable goal, both in terms of climate change mitigation and other health/environmental impacts of fossil fuels, as well as being sensible in respect to limited oil/gas supplies).

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  8. UHVDC links are a positive idea but piggy backing them onto gas pipelines isn’t. Seems like Australia needs to be putting efforts into real planning of actual infrastructure but that looks absent – too many of our elected reps either don’t understand the real seriousness of the issue or deny it’s a real issue at all. If a decade or so is all we have I think we are in deep poo; there isn’t any real indication of serious intent from our national gov’t to tackle the issue. After watching ABC’s 4 Corners and hearing coal industry spokespeople insisting they should get 100% of their carbon credits for free it’s clear that they aren’t going to co-operate with ghg reductions. Are there any major Australian projects in the pipeline to build any low carbon replacements for coal power plants or fit those plants with CCS? Oh please someone start making peel and stick solar that’s cheap as chip wrapper and batteries that can run trucks and ships and planes. I think that without clean energy technologies that are cheaper than coal fired prices – after they’ve bottomed out – the short term economics will trump any long term reduction efforts.

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  9. I’m glad to see all this discussion of HVDC.
    Couple observations.
    I don’t necessary support building natural gas pipelines to Asia either.
    However:
    1. If a delivery system needs to be built, why not build it at the same time as HVDC?
    2. Some thumbnail calculations I’ve done (and I’m no expert) indicate it could be cheaper than LNG liquefaction and expensive tanker ships and receiving and shipping ports etc etc etc. In other words, the common wisdom of LNG may be deeply flawed.
    3. After 2050, those gas pipelines might be repurposed for other uses, carrying hydrogen, say.
    4. SOME natural gas would be advisable to use for decades to come for its helpful load balancing properties.

    DESERTEC-Australia’s aim in positing a Pan-Asian HVDC/natgas infrastructure is to raise the broader point that a good part of the GHG problem can be tackled by increasing cross border trade in energy and universal carbon pricing. This will produce better quality price signals for microeconomic investment. Simply, instituting carbon pricing in ringfenced, autarkic domestic markets won’t do the trick and just leads to ‘the other guys have to go first!’ caterwauling by vested interests.

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  10. I’m sorry, but I think that the call for ‘greater energy efficiency’ is one of the great red herrings of the current energy debate. Most energy is used in industry and agriculture, where commercial considerations have already driven energy efficiency as far as it is economical to go, and lets face it, all the efficiency in the world isn’t going to provide a single kilowatt-hour to someone who lives in some non-industrial backwater which doesn’t have any electrical power as it is. There’s still plenty of places left on earth in that catagory, and the denizens thereof do not intend to let that situastion stand.

    The real solution is not energy efficiency (which people implement anyway if it is affordable for them), but the vast wealth of clean and reliable power which can come from nuclear sources.

    Efficiency is not a primary virtue. It’s something to be resorted to in time of scarcity. It should not be held up as an ideal, and the poor of the world deserve better of us than to be told that since we’ve done our part by installing CF light bulbs, they have to relinquish their ambitions for electrification and mechanisation.

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  11. Hmm. That didn’t quite pan out the way I wanted it…

    Comment #15 was intended to be in response to the following:

    “By doing that you have provided a link by which a whole bunch of renewables can come on to the grid where it can’t right now, and that it is one of the major limitations for investment,” Brook said, calling also for greater focus on energy efficiency.

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  12. I think the perception that EE will make consistent gains for year upon year (I’ve seen people suggest a 5% society-wide improvement every year from now to 2050) is utterly unrealistic and ignores diminishing returns. I noted this in the Solar Fraud blog post. I agree with you Finrod that in some sectors where the $$ really talk, EE is already high and future gains will be at the margin. In housing and some other sectors, I think this is less true and we make reasonably big cuts in a 5 to 10 year timeframe based on EE. After that, I agree, it’s about the energy supply, not about dwindling use of it.

    I should note that I’m not of the view that exponential energy growth is necessary or desirable, or possible. There are likely to be finite limits and good reasons for modern societies to have their energy growth slow this century, but that won’t be the case in the developing world, who are already so far behind.

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  13. Pingback: SA sets a 33% renewables by 2020 target « BraveNewClimate.com

  14. There are several advantages to HVDC transmissions.
    1. Losses through EM radiation are less
    2. Existing systems can double their capacity by using ground as Earth and then plus and minus on each wire.
    3. Underground HVDC cables are more efficient and have less heating issues.

    Sadly the major doenside is the equipment needed to get the DC to AC is still expensive.

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