According to the MIT Technology Review, edited by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), China is building the first 1.1 million volt electric transmission network in history to bring more energy much further. While the initiative builds on the promise of boosting renewable energies, it also seems to hide a strategy of geopolitical control, as reflected in the information published in MIT.
At the beginning of 2018, the assembly of a very high red and white transmission tower was started in Anhui province (China). The workers were starting the works with a critical component of the world’s first 1.1 million volt electric transmission line, while US companies struggle to surpass 500,000 volts. When State Grid of China, the state utility company, completes the project this year, the network will connect power plants in inland regions with cities near the coast.
According to the technical publication, this transmission network will be have the capacity to distribute the production of 12 large power plants along some 3,200 kilometers, delivering 50% more electricity and covering a distance of 1,000 kilometers more than any other network built. The greater the voltage of the transmission line, the more electricity can be transported at a greater distance and with fewer losses. One of the project’s foreign equipment suppliers ensured that the network could send electricity from Beijing (China) to Bangkok (Thailand). This data offers an idea of the scope of the project.
Initially, the company developed and built the ultra high voltage lines to meet the growing energy demand of its immense country, where the high mountains and long distances separate population centers from coal and from hydroelectric, wind and solar energy. But now, the goal of State Grid is much more ambitious: to link the electricity systems of neighboring countries in transcontinental “super-networks” capable of exchanging energy across borders and oceans.
These lines make it possible to balance the scarce solar energy in a given time zone with the wind, hydroelectric or geothermal energy that is generated in areas situated at several distant time zones
These massive networks could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since they would allow non-dispatchable renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, to increase their production beyond the demand of the countries themselves. The longer and higher capacity lines make it possible to balance the scarce solar energy in a time zone, for example, with the wind, hydroelectric or geothermal energy that is generated at several zones of distance, as described by the MIT magazine.
Politics and bureaucracy have hampered the creation of such immense and modern energy networks in much of the world. The United States could take more than a decade to get the federal, national, state, regional and private approvals needed to build the towers, cables and underground tubes. And generally these approvals are very difficult to achieve.
Geopolitical control strategy
“An interconnected long-distance power transmission network is an important piece of the climate puzzle,” says former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who is currently vice president of the non-profit organization that State Grid launched in 2016 to boost the international connections of the network. The expert adds: “China wants to be a leader in all these technologies of the future, instead of looking in the rearview mirror as the United States seems to be doing”.
But facilitating the use of renewable energy is neither the only nor the main motivation of China. This electricity transmission infrastructure is a strategic part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s multi-trillion-euro effort to create development projects and business relationships in dozens of countries. Expanding its ultra high voltage cables worldwide promises to increase its economic, technological and political power.
One million employees and 1.1 billion customers
MIT magazine rates State Grid as “the largest company we’ve heard of”, with nearly a million employees and 1.1 billion customers. Last year, it reported that its profits had amounted to 8.4 million euros with a turnover of 308,000 million euros, which makes it the second largest company in the Fortune Global 500 list.
State Grid participates in national companies in Australia, Greece, Italy, the Philippines and Portugal and develops projects in Egypt, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Pakistan
State Grid is already the largest energy distributor in Brazil, where it built its first (and to date the only) ultra high voltage line abroad. The company has also acquired stakes in national power transmission companies in Australia, Greece, Italy, the Philippines and Portugal. Meanwhile, it is developing important projects in Egypt, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Pakistan, and continues to buy shares in other European utilities.
State Grid was created at the end of 2002, when the Chinese government put an end to the massive monopoly of the State Energy Company of China, dividing it into 11 smaller companies to generate and distribute energy. This regulatory breakthrough was designed to encourage competition and accelerate development as the nation struggled to meet growing energy demands and curb recurring blackouts. But State Grid was, by far, the largest amongst the two resulting transmission companies, and it now operates as a monopoly in almost 90% of the nation.