The benefits of an intercontinental energy grid
By pooling its renewable energy with Asia, Australia
could look forward to a sustainable future.
Image: DESERTEC-Australia

Imagine an Asian electricity grid anchored by China at one end and Australia on the other. The grid would carry and distribute hemispheric solar, geothermal, wind and wave energy. The vision is big. But so's the problem of climate change.

Start by looking at Asia's energy status quo. Fossil fuels dominate. Renewable energy development is sporadic. National grids aren't interconnected. Carbon costs aren't applied. Vision is lacking.

Now, apply sensible economic and technological rationalisation. What pops out is a networked Asian electricity backbone in which efficiency, price and environmental-friendliness count. A regional grid would offer a frictionless exchange of kilowatthours akin to the frictionless exchange of electrons the Internet has brought.

The plan would entail building a 10,000-kilometer long electricity transmission system stretching from Beijing to the Great Australian Bight. Australian concentrating solar power, geothermal, wind and wave energy would flow northward. It would be joined by the harnessed geothermal power of Indonesia's volcanoes. This torrent of Austro-Indonesian low emission energy would then wend its way across a wind farm-lined South China Sea to China. Or the transmission system could go by land through a Southeast Asia regional High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) power line paralleling existing power lines in Malaysia, Thailand and Laos.

Southeast Asian natural gas and Laotian and Vietnamese hydro power plants could provide 'load balancing' in a regional grid dominated by renewables. Even China's Three Gorges Dam might find a role as hemispheric provider of peaking power. That's because using hydro (and natural gas) for baseload power in an electricity system dominated by renewables makes about as much sense as employing trapeze artists to shovel gravel.

Tibetan and southern Mongolian deserts could be developed for concentrating solar power, wind and geothermal energy. Windfarms stretching from Shenzen to Shanghai off China's east coast could similarly provide huge amounts of power.

A spinal electricity vertebra would span the region. And if regional natural gas pipelines were built alongside high-capacity power lines, the logic would become even more compelling. Massive complexity would be stripped from the natural gas production and distribution industries. That's because natural gas pipelines don't require expensive LNG trains, supercooled tankers, eminent domain seizure of private land or protection against pirates. What would exist instead would be a massively flexible, highly-practical, low-cost common-carrier infrastructure. .

Renewable energy delivered via a ubiquitous regional grid represents a market-based, clean energy dream-team. It's like rolling the Internet's packet switching, eBay's auction methodogy and carbon priced consumer behaviour modification into one. Lastly, since everyone will be drinking from the same well, there'll be a premium on cooperative, multilateral good-neighborliness. Stated negatively, 'collective assured destruction' would maintain peace in a multipolar Asia where regional prosperity would hinge upon collective infrastructure stability.

Energy and water loom as 21st Century flashpoints. Tethering Asia to a common watering hole makes more sense than gunboat 'go it alone' fights over resources. Civilized, rules-based sharing seems much smarter. Wouldn't you agree?

Stewart Taggart is a solar industry executive. He is also administrator of DESERTEC-USA and DESERTEC-Australia. DESERTEC advocates the development of large scale solar power capacity in desert regions.

This opinion has also been published in the American Chronicle.

Editor's Note: This opinion was provided by DESERTEC-Australia, please click here to see the original report. This article is under copyright; permission must be sought from DESERTEC-Australia in order to reproduce it.