Watching the prices of natural gas in Europe, and gasoline in the US, soar as the Ukraine conflict strangles the supply of fossil fuels, you might think that energy self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal for any country.
But trying to go it alone comes with its own risks. Texas, which has kept its electricity system largely separate from the two large national grids in the US, suffered widespread water, food, and heating shortages in 2021 when freezing storms knocked out local generating capacity. The state was unable to effectively import electricity and prices in the deregulated, market-based system spiked: on a single day that winter, Texans paid more for their electricity than they did in the whole of 2020.
Most energy grids today are somewhere between these extreme outcomes. Nevertheless, the extremes are instructive, and beg a larger question: as we prepare ourselves for the bigger challenges that climate change will bring, can we design systems that marry resilience with mutuality, and all on a far more sustainable, low-carbon basis than we have today?
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1. Regional networks can keep the lights on. During the winter storms in 2021, power systems neighboring Texas experienced similar cold weather conditions but were able to import 15 times as much power, avoiding the worst of that state’s problems and deaths. This analysis concludes that large-scale transmission capacity not only reduces the impacts of extreme weather events, but reduces costs for consumers, and enables more renewable energy to be integrated into the grid.
2. Moving to a continental macrogrid. Away from Texas, the rest of the continental US is served by two grids, east and west, that remain largely separate. Joining them into a “macrogrid” would cost $50 billion—but deliver over twice that value in benefits, according to a two-year study by the US Department of Energy. A continental macrogrid could smooth out the demands of the daily cycle, and balance wind energy in the mid-West with solar from the Southwest. This week, Ukraine and Moldova synchronized their grids with the Continental Europe Grid, with the aim of stabilizing power supply to the region.
When the sun isn’t shining in Las Vegas,
it could be windy in St Louis.
This map shows how a macrogrid (the red lines) could cross the seam separating the Eastern and Western interconnections, allowing most of the country to share electricity, including Midwest wind energy and Southwest solar energy. Map courtesy of the Interconnections Seam Study, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
3. And why stop there? In 2015, Chinese president Xi Jinping famously proposed a “global energy internet” to the UN, composed of high voltage direct current (HVDC) cables that could interconnect entire continents, and eventually the world. HVDC systems lose less energy than traditional alternating current (AC) transmission over long distances, making it more economic to connect remote generation sources, such as off-shore wind or desert solar, to population centers. And if one country suffers a natural or man-made disaster, it can easily import power from abroad.
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Go It Alone
1. If you can afford a battery, great. On a household level, solar panels and lithium-ion battery storage now allow well-heeled consumers to be largely self-sufficient for electricity, if they moderate their usage. The same technologies scaled up, perhaps bolstered by wind or geothermal systems, enable microgrids to serve remote communities with carbon-free energy. Such exclusive systems must be carefully designed to avoid equity issues for those still reliant on the legacy grid.
2. Careful who you partner with. Researchers at the University of Rome have pointed out that adding interdependencies between different power grids, although useful day-to-day, actually increases the chance of cascading failures that knock everything out.
3. Whose hand is on the lever? An affordable, resilient international electricity grid sounds great, until you consider who might be in control of it. China’s HVDC vision is rooted in Chinese systems and standards. Just as the West has been cutting off Russia’s access to its technologies in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine, a future global grid would require robust regulation and oversight to avoid a dangerous dependency on a single nation or business. But if mega-grids do not include geopolitical rivals, they could become even more attractive targets for hackers and cyber-attacks.
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What to Keep An Eye on
1. Government spending. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that the global cost to strengthen electricity grids by 2050 could top $14 billion. Biden mentioned HVDC in passing in February, as part of his Build Back Better effort. It remains to be seen whether Western governments have the popular support to invest in grid resiliency—including maximizing nuclear energy—as suggested in the IEA’s recent plan for the EU to reduce its reliance on Russian gas.
2. AI upgrading the grid. Anthropocene reported on using machine learning to help balance supply and demand and researchers at the University of Vermont have developed a system to decentralize grid control. This uses similar technologies to those that keep the internet running smoothly, to smooth out demand for renewable power sources without so much fossil fuel backup.
3. China leapfrogging the rest of the world. The world’s most populous country already has far more HVDC lines than any other, and is now investing in expensive but revolutionary ultra high voltage DC (UHVDC) systems. These enable even longer transmission lines, stretching for thousands of kilometers—great for linking distant renewable power sources.