The Northeast Asia region which consist of China, Russia, South Korea, North Korea, Japan and Mongolia, consumes about a third of the world’s energy and industry experts estimates its annual electricity demand will double to 6.4 petawatt-hours by 2050.
The five nations, with the exception of North Korea, have signed a series of agreements in recent years to connect their national power lines and coordinate electricity production and distribution.
Now, according to a new study by Chinese scientists, a super power grid connecting all the countries of Northeast Asia would make renewable energy as cheap and available as coal.
The regional power grid would enable long distance, cross border transmission of renewable energy like hydropower, solar and wind at a cost as low as 0.35 yuan (five US cents) per kilowatt – hour, or about the same as the electricity generated by China’s coal-fired power plants.
South Korea and Japan rely on fossil fuels imported from the Middle East about 90 per cent of their energy needs meanwhile China’s coal fired power plants not only pollute its own cities but affect neighboring countries as well. Most government in the region have set ambitious targets to reduce their carbon emissions and renewable energy is expected to grow much faster than fossil fuels in future capacity build-up.
Northeast Asia is blessed with rich renewable energy resources. The world’s biggest untapped water resources are located in Russia’s far east, while Mongolia’s Gobi desert offers one of the world’s best sites for solar energy plants. Offshore wind farms in the East China Sea and the western Pacific Ocean could also generate an enormous amount of energy for the region.
Nevertheless, one obstacle remains. The supply of renewable energy is unstable – hydropower, wind and solar power are affected by changes in the weather and season – and that can introduce shocks to the power grid.
To deal with fluctuations, countries like China are planning to build energy storage plants using various form of technologies, from batteries to air compressors. However, such power banks would make renewable energy more expensive.
According to the study, a power grid would eliminate the need for most of these power banks. For an example, when hydropower output in China decreased in winter, it would be at full capacity in Siberia. The same would apply to wind and solar energy.
Computer simulations suggested the power gird could effectively balance the uneven distribution of renewable and make nearly all long term energy storage facilities unnecessary.
Several ideas for such project have been put forward. Japanese investment company SoftBank, for instance, proposed building a high voltage power line from the Gobi Desert to the Korean peninsula that could carry solar energy directly to Samsung’s chip-making plants and other users.
But the study shows that such a long cable would not be economical because of the the drain caused by electrical resistance. A more efficient way would be to send clean energy from Russia and Mongolia to China, and then from China to South Korea and Japan.
Additionally, it would also be more economical for South Korea and Japan to build their own renewable energy production plants instead of relying on long distance transmission from Mongolia, Russia or China.
In present time, China produces 70 per cent of the region’s energy and plans to be the world’s biggest investor in wind and solar energy in the coming decades under a plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
China’s wind and solar farms, already the world’s largest, would continue to grow at a pace much faster than any other country. It is widely expected in the industry that China will play a leading role in the planning and construction of a super power grid.
The country has already connected its power grid to Russia and Mongolia, and construction of a project to connect it to South Korea is expected to start next year, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific said in a report published last year.
The UN supports the development of a northeast Asian power grid as it would boost regional economy, reduce pollution and help global efforts to combat climate change.
The power grid would “support broader regional integration and peace by providing a new framework for cooperation and creating mutual positive interdependencies between the [six] northeast Asian countries,” the UN report said.
A researcher with the Institute of Electrical Engineering at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing said that energy cost was just one of the many challenges facing the development of a regional power grid.
Although China is a leading player in long-distance power transmission, some technical problems remain to be solved, especially the management of power grids from different countries, said the researcher who is informed about the project but asked not to be named as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
“Geopolitics can also get in the way,” he said.
Diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea are at their lowest point in decades, and there are also tensions between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu Islands. Japan and South Korea are military allies of the United States, which could add further uncertainty to the project.