Are Transcontinental, Submarine Supergrids the Future of Energy?

Are Transcontinental, Submarine Supergrids the Future of Energy?
Bloomberg Businessweek reports on “renewed interest in cables that can power consumers in one country with electricity generated hundreds, even thousands, of miles away in another” and possibly even transcontinental, submarine electricity superhighways:

Coal, gas and even nuclear plants can be built close to the markets they serve, but the utility-scale solar and wind farms many believe essential to meet climate targets often can’t. They need to be put wherever the wind and sun are strongest, which can be hundreds or thousands of miles from urban centers. Long cables can also connect peak afternoon solar power in one time zone to peak evening demand in another, reducing the price volatility caused by mismatches in supply and demand as well as the need for fossil-fueled back up capacity when the sun or wind fade. As countries phase out carbon to meet climate goals, they’ll have to spend at least $14 trillion to strengthen grids by 2050, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That’s only a little shy of projected spending on new renewable generation capacity and it’s increasingly clear that high- and ultra-high-voltage direct current lines will play a part in the transition.

The question is how international will they be…?

The article points out that in theory, Mongolia’s Gobi desert “has potential to deliver 2.6 terawatts of wind and solar power — more than double the U.S.’s entire installed power generation capacity — to a group of Asian powerhouse economies that together produce well over a third of global carbon emissions…”

The same goes for the U.S., where with the right infrastructure, New York could tap into sun- and wind-rich resources from the South and Midwest. An even more ambitious vision would access power from as far afield as Canada or Chile’s Atacama Desert, which has the world’s highest known levels of solar power potential per square meter. Jeremy Rifkin, a U.S. economist who has become the go-to figure for countries looking to remake their infrastructure for the digital and renewable future, sees potential for a single, 1.1 billion-person electricity market in the Americas that would be almost as big as China’s. Rifkin has advised Germany and the EU, as well as China…

Persuading countries to rely on each other to keep the lights on is tough, but the universal, yet intermittent nature of solar and wind energy also makes it inevitable, according to Rifkin. “This isn’t the geopolitics of fossil fuels,” owned by some and bought by others, he says. “It is biosphere politics, based on geography. Wind and sun force sharing….”

If these supergrids don’t get built, it will be because their time has both come and gone. Not only are they expensive, politically difficult, and unpopular — they have to cross a lot of backyards — their focus on mega-power installations seems outdated to some. Distributed microgeneration as close to home as your rooftop, battery storage, and transportable hydrogen all offer competing solutions to the delivery problems supergrids aim to solve.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.