East Asia weighs up super-grid plan to link Russia to Japan
Power network linking Russia to Japan "concrete way towards a more harmonious region"
An East Asian super-grid could provide major economic and environmental benefits to the region, but the plan remains in the earliest stages of discussion and would face very steep hurdles before it could become a reality.
In spite of two decades of talks about an East Asian super-grid there is as yet no firm proposal, or master plan, for what that network would look like. But a study currently being carried by Energy Charter, to be released later this year, could provide a path forward.
The plan will include linking wind and solar farms in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, as well as hydropower from East Siberia, in Russia, to markets in China, South Korea and Japan via high-voltage transmission lines, said Urban Rusnák, general secretary of Energy Charter, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to facilitate cross-border energy cooperation.
The study is drawing on ideas put forward by the Gobitec project, which proposed building 100 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar generation capacity in Mongolia to be transmitted south. The plan echoes the Desertec project that has proposed linking vast solar farms in North Africa to the European grid. The addition of Russian hydropower to that proposal could provide necessary balance to the system to address intermittency issues with wind and solar production, Rusnák said.
The logic of such a plan is clear, said Zeng Pingliang, senior fellow at the China Electric Power Research Institute of the State Grid Corporation of China. “Development of renewable energy such as wind and [solar] are already regarded as an effective means of combating global warming and energy sustainability. However, in the Far East and in China especially the energy resources distribution is pretty uneven and we need a transmission system to transit the energy from production to the demand centres over vast distances.”
A super-grid could deliver a host of benefits to the region. Opening up the huge markets of China, South Korea and Japan could spur billions of dollars of new investment in energy projects in Mongolia and East Siberia. Russian president Vladimir Putin has put the development of East Siberia’s huge but largely untapped natural resources at the heart of his economic policy.
For the receiving countries, a super-grid could offer a new source of clean energy, help cut down on expensive gas imports and provide flexibility and resiliency to their electricity grid.
There are, however, also huge challenges to any such project. One of those is political. The super-grid would require a high degree of coordination, cooperation and trust between the countries. But countries in East Asia, including Russia, all have very complicated histories and relations are marked by distrust. That has prevented regional integration in other industries, and it would likely hinder any joint energy projects. Similar plans, for instance, for an integrated gas pipeline network from Russia into China, South Korea and Japan have suffered from a lack of coordination and differing visions for the project between the countries.
Zeng recognised those historical tensions, but argued that a super-grid project could actually act as facilitator for better relations. “We all have to move on and reduce the tensions somehow. Having a super-grid system could provide a concrete project to help build a more harmonious East Asia.”
Another major challenge for the project is North Korea, and whether or not the reclusive country would be integrated into the super-grid. All the panelists agreed that it would be beneficial to both the project and North Korea itself for it to be included in the project, though nobody thought North Korea would sign on anytime soon. Having North Korea involved in the project would eliminate the need for a costly subsea high-voltage line from China to South Korea, and instead allow the construction of a cheaper over-ground connection from Russia into the Korean Peninsula.
It could also act as a catalyst for North Korea’s economy. “I think North Korea will be participating in this project because it could provide them with economic benefits, and I think that benefit is quite big compared to the scale of the North Korean economy.”
“Right now we cannot transfer power through wifi, so of course they should be in the mix… they cannot be neglected,” said Stepan Karapetian, senior director of Asian markets at EN+, a Russian energy producer. Russia has pushed the development of a number of economic development projects including railways and oil and gas pipelines that would link Russia with the Korean peninsula, but with limited success.
If North Korea is going to be involved in the project, though, they should be involved from the start, warned Rusnák. “Once the direction is started, which might circumvent North Korea, via, say, undersea cables... it will be very difficult to build a second round, because there will be questions of capacity.”
Because of the complexities involved and the lack of progress to date, a top-down, master-planned approach to establishing an Asian super-grid may not end up being the quickest, or most effective, route to take, said Zeng. Instead, a system could be built out on a piecemeal basis, with one or two major projects forming the base for eventual integration.