Sunday, January 16

The ugly and expensive plan to bring green energy to China’s megacities

To convert wind and sunlight into energy, you first need land. Large amount of land, ideally unpopulated, where hundreds of wind turbines and thousands of solar panels can be installed.

Bringing all that green power to densely populated shopping malls requires something more: thousands of miles of ultra-high-voltage power lines, loudly buzzing with electricity.

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A group of high voltage power line towers near a solar farm in Gonghe, China. Photographer: Qilai Shen / Bloomberg

China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, cannot meet its environmental goals without connecting its abundant renewable energy sources with its coastal megacities. By 2030, it plans to have enough solar and wind capacity to generate 1,200 gigawatts, which is equal to all the energy needs of the United States. To connect that to the grid, you’re investing in a nationwide network of power lines that, by one estimate, will take 30 years and cost $ 300 billion, compared to the recent 10-year, $ 65 billion allocation to infrastructure. of the network by the US Congress.

The increasing number of lines crossing the country from one huge pylon to another are expensive, noisy and, for many, a blight on the landscape. But most countries share the situation with China. The best places to harvest wind and solar power are far from the people who need them. As of now, ultra-high voltage lines are the only solution, and most economies are woefully behind. Brazil is the only other country that has two fully operational UHV lines, and a Chinese company built them. China has 30.

“If you want cheap, safe and clean energy, I don’t know how to get there without UHV power lines,” said Michael Skelly, senior advisor at Lazard Ltd. in Houston and founder of Grid United LLC, a US energy company. infrastructure.

The problem is distance and storage. Coal mining also often takes place far from urban centers, but coal and other fossil fuels can be sent to power plants closer to cities. Power itself only travels a short distance. That doesn’t work with renewable energy. Wind and sun cannot be loaded onto trucks for delivery elsewhere.

Transmission of those electrons over thousands of kilometers requires direct current lines, the bigger the better. The higher the voltage, the less energy will be gradually lost along the way. UHV lines from Qinghai, Xinjiang and Yunnan to Beijing, Chongqing and Jiangsu carry the equivalent of 10 power plants. That is why you have to hang them so high off the ground. This is also why they are noisy – the electric field breaks down the air molecules, making that perpetual. zzzzz sound.

High voltage towers that support high voltage lines can reach more than 100 meters. Photographer: Qilai Shen / Bloomberg

In October, President Xi Jinping announced a collection of solar and wind projects, the first phase of which will add around 100 gigawatts of power, or enough to power Mexico. Of the six inland regions that have been harnessed to host a new crop of wind and solar farms, Qinghai has critical advantages. It is windy, bright, and sparsely populated. It is also the origin of the Yellow River.

One day in late September, Yang Xueli was standing in front of the Longyangxia Dam, a hydroelectric power station with an integral role to play in China’s grid. There was not a cloud in the sky, Qinghai is one of the sunniest provinces in China, and the water looked green in the noon light. Solar panel fields are not far away, making this home to the largest combined solar and hydroelectric facility in the world. “The water and the light complement each other,” said Yang, deputy chief of the hydroelectric plant. “When the light is intermittent, we adjust with hydroelectric power.”

Even in dry and sunny places like Qinghai, the weather can be unpredictable and the energy generated by sunlight, such as wind, varies depending on the conditions. The power from the dam is reliable, ensuring that the UHV line can carry a full charge of electricity. As technology evolves, Yang said, power from renewables will supplant the need for coal.

The facility spans about 600 square kilometers, roughly the size of Singapore. When everything is up and running, it will generate about 18.7 gigawatts of electricity, equivalent to all the energy needs of Israel or twice that of New Zealand. It’s more than enough for the 6 million residents of Qinghai, which earlier this year became the first province in China to run on renewable energy for a full month.

President Xi announced a collection of solar and wind projects in October; the first phase alone will generate enough power to power Mexico. Photographer: Qilai Shen / Bloomberg

The cables themselves are agnostic. As of now, most of the electricity they carry is still derived from coal-fired power plants. China has pledged that all new interprovincial power lines transmit at least 50% renewable energy, according to a government roadmap published in October, which sets out how it will limit carbon emissions by 2030.

Two companies will be responsible for the construction. The country’s dominant electricity provider, the government-owned State Grid, has announced a $ 350 billion expansion through 2025 that includes, but does not include, UHV. It already has 26 lines in operation, five under construction and another seven planned for the next three years. By then, all of State Grid’s interprovincial UHV lines will carry at least 50% clean energy, in accordance with its plan to meet the nation’s carbon targets published in March.

China Southern Power Grid Co, the other major operator, has four UHV lines and plans to spend just over $ 100 billion to expand its network through 2025, although it did not detail its specific investment in UHV.

Both grid operators declined interview requests for this story, and the National Energy Administration, which is expected to publish its latest five-year plan for the power grid this month, could not be reached for comment.

There will also be other winners: wind and solar companies that already dominate global renewable energy; manufacturers of networks and energy storage equipment; the commodity traders who supply the copper that is used to conduct electricity. Shares of Nari Technology Co., the Shanghai-listed equipment manufacturing subsidiary of State Grid, more than doubled last year and is poised to continue rising, analysts say. Sieyuan Electric Co., a manufacturer of electrical components, power distributor State Grid Information & Communication (SGIC), and TGOOD Electric, a manufacturer of transformers, are favorites to beat them.

Detractors don’t like the cost of the UHV network, and it is possible that an yet undeveloped technology could reduce the return on the significant investment. China’s lines have also been hit by low utilization rates. Grid operators and the government are trying to synchronize the development of new power generation with the construction of UHV lines that will accommodate a larger share of clean energy, according to BloombergNEF analyst Lin Wang in Beijing.

Lines running from the desert interior to coastal megacities have enough power to create an audible hum. Photographer: Qilai Shen / Bloomberg

There is no shortage of demand. Many global companies operating in China have set strict deadlines for using 100% clean energy, said David Fishman, an analyst at The Lantau Group based in Hong Kong. “If you are in the south or east of China and you have a constantly increasing demand for renewable energy, but are limited by your installation capacity, UHV is your only access to renewable energy,” he said.

In the US, where massive power outages have become more frequent and widespread in recent years, similar efforts to establish a national grid have failed. Skelly founded Clean Line Energy in 2009 and raised $ 100 million to plan five high-voltage lines to transport wind power from the Great Plains to cities thousands of miles away.

The lines were popular with wind farm developers in Oklahoma and Kansas, offering power to major cities like Memphis at lower rates than they were paying nearby coal plants. But they faced opposition from landowners and state regulators along the routes, and the resulting delays ultimately forced Clean Line to sell the projects and withdraw.

This is a common stumbling block for UHV projects. Because the lines are so long and provide few tangible benefits to cities down the road, it’s easy for projects that need incremental local approvals to get stopped. People in China’s overflown cities are not fond of plans to install massive electrical towers between them, but Beijing has prioritized zero net targets and the projects have been carried out.

China plans to have enough capacity to generate 1,200 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030. Photographer: Qilai Shen / Bloomberg

Yang, a 28-year veteran of China’s energy industry, lives in a nearby complex that houses about 100 dam workers, mostly men. The dam, he says, is critical for irrigation in the Yellow River basin and, along with solar energy, for the constant supply of clean energy that will protect the environment in the long term. “We are very excited,” he said.

Some day, Yang’s facility could become a feeder for a regional or global network. Given the regional politics and internal concerns of each country, the idea seems like a long shot. But several cross-border projects are underway in Europe and Asia, and earlier this year Skelly founded a new company dedicated to long-distance, high-voltage renewable energy transmission.

“It’s not like we decide overnight: ‘Let’s make a global network,'” he said. “When they laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable, they didn’t plan to connect the whole world. But you turn around 100 years later and the whole world is connected. ”

© 2021 Bloomberg

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