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    Greater China
     Dec 1, 2012

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Powering up Asia's super-grid
By John A Mathews

The integration of East Asia is a topic of perennial interest - whether it be monetary integration (much discussed in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis), trade integration (promoted via ever-expanding FTA areas) or even political integration. But what is not widely discussed (as yet) is actually the best hope for effective integration - and that is energy integration, via an Asian super grid linking the enhanced electric power systems of China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and perhaps Russia.

Just such an Asian super grid has been proposed - by the charismatic Softbank CEO Son Masayoshi, driver of Japan's post-Fukushima shift to a renewable energy pathway. The first steps towards the Asian super grid (ASG) were taken in October, when SB Renewables, Son's new subsidiary specializing in renewable energy, announced an agreement with a company in Mongolia, Newcom, to develop a site in the Gobi desert for a giant wind farm


that would feed renewable power into the grid. [1]

It is anticipated that by the end of 2012 SB Renewables and Newcom will have identified the site for the first wind farm in the Gobi desert through a joint venture, Clean Energy Asia, established in March this year. The proposed wind farm would be rated at 300 megawatts (the equivalent of a thermal power plant), and could be operational as early as 2014. Feasibility studies for three other sites have already been commissioned, with power capacity of 7 gigawatts - or the equivalent of seven nuclear power stations.

Newcom has already established a track record, building Mongolia's first wind farm in record time, and set to bring it to fruition by the end of 2012. Mongolia is a classic instance of a latecomer country powering ahead through heavy utilization of its vast fossil fuel reserves (mainly coal). It is a country sharing major borders with China and Russia that has had unprecedented flows of inward foreign investment from companies like Rio Tinto to build its coal export industry - much of that coal going to power China's black industrial revolution.

But at the same time, Mongolia is seeing the development of vast wind farms that promise a genuine green revolution. Newcom, led by its English-speaking CEO, Bayanjargal Byambasaikhan, is creating a huge new wind farm at Salkhit, just outside the capital Ulaanbaator, where 31 wind turbines are being brought into commission to generate 5% of the country's power needs (now totally dependent on coal). [2]

Salkhit Wind Farm

This is only the start. Newcom and Byambasaikan see a future where Mongolia's wind resources can be harnessed to power not only its own development but also much of China's and Asia's electric grids, earning profits for Newcom and export earnings for Mongolia.

Japan Renewable Energy Foundation
Son announced the Asian super grid as one of the first projects of his newly established Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF), set up in May 2011 immediately after the Fukushima disaster. Son recruited the former head of Sweden's National Energy Agency, Tomas Kaberger, to head up JREF. At an important conference staged in Tokyo on the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, JREF launched the proposal for an Asian super grid, in conjunction with the Desertec Foundation, which is backing a similar proposal linking renewable energy generating sites in North Africa with European power grids.

The breathtaking scope of the ASG proposal is of a piece with the other far-reaching initiatives taken by Son's SB Renewables and JREF - including a series of solar farms in Japan designed to take advantage of the new feed-in tariffs launched in Japan on July 1st 2012.

Indeed JREF and SB Renewables have been driving the debate over the phase-out of nuclear and accelerated uptake of renewables. (See Andrew DeWit's articles such as "Japan's new green political innovators respond to government attempts to restart nuclear power", June 13, 2012, and DeWit, "Japan's remarkable Renewable Energy drive - after Fukushima", March 11, 2012.) Dr Kaberger outlined the ASG proposal in further detail at a presentation in Mongolia in March - see Figure 1.

Figure 1: Asia super grid proposal from Japan Renewable Energy Foundation

Source: Japan Renewable Energy Foundation

The core idea is that wind farms (and possibly solar farms as well) in the Gobi desert can be linked via high-tension transmission lines to Korea, Japan and possibly Russia; to China; and thence (more speculatively) to Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, and even India. The costs of generating power in the desert locations would be low, and provided the transmission costs can be kept low enough through utilization of high-capacity HVDC lines (which China for example is installing under its plans for grid upgrading under the 12th Five-Year Plan), the power delivered in the various countries would be competitive with thermal or nuclear power.

Figure 2: The Desertec proposal

Source: Desertec Foundation

The same idea underpins the proposal from the Desertec Foundation to link European grids with solar power stations in the deserts of North Africa (Figure 2). The Desertec proposal has been championed by German firms (despite some recent high-profile withdrawals), and other firms in Europe - most of whom would envisage being involved in the building of any eventual interconnected grid utilizing renewable power. The proposal has received a significant boost since the Arab Spring uprisings, offering North African countries like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt new possibilities of generating energy to power their industrialization and to have a product to export as well.

Indeed there is already an initiative linking Tunisia with Italy, promoted by a consortium consisting of Nur Energie (a British firm with a French name) and Top Oilfield Services, an oil and gas engineering firm operating from Tunisia (the TuNur consortium). The Tunisian solar park would be rated at 2 GW, or equivalent to two nuclear power stations. The proposal calls for an undersea high-tension cable linking the Tunisian solar park with the Italian grid, as shown in Figure 3. [3]

In short, the idea of the Asian super grid in itself is not so far-fetched - and when I discussed the proposal with Son at the Global Green Growth summit in Seoul in May this year (where we were both speakers), he was confident that the proposal is sound and can be implemented. He outlined to me the basic concept that drives it - free trade in electric power.

Figure 3: TuNur proposal for a first electric power linkage between Italy and Tunisia

Source: Desertec Foundation

Basic concept of the ASG
The core driver of the Asian super grid is the proposal to link the electricity grids of China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea and possibly Russia into a vast interconnected power system. Such an IT-enhanced interconnected grid will be able to accommodate the fluctuating inputs from various renewable sources and match them to fluctuating demand - thereby enabling renewable sources to be scaled up to a level exceeding incumbent fossil-fueled systems.

As in Son's earlier ventures into IT, computing and telecommunications, his strategy is to tackle established monopolies and take advantage of liberalization to create effective competitors that sow the seeds of creative destruction. In the case of the ASG, the established firms are the large electric power firms (like Tepco in Japan or Chinese giants like China Datang and China Southern Power Grid Co), and the concept depends on being able to break their quasi-monopoly control over electricity markets by trading electricity as a commodity between the established (and enhanced) national grids.

Trading electricity!
Son put this revolutionary idea on the table in Japan in hearings before the Diet in April. "Let's connect Japan to other countries and make them compete", he said. "We import oil and gas. What's wrong with importing electricity?". [4]

Indeed, what's wrong with the idea? When Son Masayoshi and I met in Seoul in April, he told me that he had asked officials at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) whether it was "illegal" to import electric power, in competition with the established monopolistic power generators such as Tepco. He said the officials were nonplussed. They told him that it wasn't legal, in the sense that there were regulations covering it - but neither was it illegal.

His intervention has evidently sparked a scramble at METI to deal with the prospect of a super-competitive electric power market able to import renewable power from sites such as Mongolian wind farms. This is meat and drink to Son, who sparked such scrambles in his earlier interventions via Softbank into the information technology, personal computer and telecommunications markets in Japan.

There is one immediate obstacle. Japan's Electricity Business Act has an article restricting foreign companies from supplying electricity in Japan - so that represents a legislative hurdle that would need to be cleared if the ASG is to become a reality.

Assuming Son gets the go-ahead to import electric power, he foresees a relatively simple initial step as involving a link between Japan's southern island of Kyushu and South Korea - calling for a 400 kilometer high-tension cable embodying the latest 700 kV HVDC technology. This cable length is comparable to the existing link in Europe between Norway and the Netherlands (two of the rare countries that have actually interconnected their power grids), which is 580 km long and was completed in 2008 (14 years after the two countries agreed in principle to link their grids). Obviously Son intends to move at a faster pace than that. 

Continued 1 2  

Japan struggles to store nuclear plant waste water
(Oct 26, '12)



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