About Us

IEEE/Power Engineering Society

1998 Winter Meeting Panel Session:
"Environmental Implications and Potential of International HVAC and HVDC Interconnections,"
Tampa, Florida February 2, 1998

Linking Renewable Energy Resources:
A Compelling Global Strategy for Sustainable Development

Peter Meisen
Global Energy Network Institute (GENI)
San Diego, CA

The expansion of high-voltage AC and DC interconnected systems continues to develop around the world. The power pools of North America, UCPTE, CENTREL, the CIS and Nordel networks are proven energy infrastructure -- providing enormous cost savings in power trading, reduced capacity requirements and emergency backup. Economic growth in Latin America, India, China and Southeast Asia is driving the demand for more capacity and the transmission systems to deliver this power.

As in the past several decades, the overwhelming majority of the power development is from fossil and nuclear sources. The most blatant contemporary example is China. Adding a large thermal station every month is planned over the next 20 years. While starting from a very low consumption per capita, this energy development rate is projected to make China the world's largest polluter within the next decade.

There is a solution to the dilemma of energy needs vs. pollution. Long distance transmission is now capable of reaching far beyond political boundaries. By tapping some of the planet's abundant renewable energy resources in remote locations, we can now provide the electricity necessary for development in an environmentally sustainable manner.

The Global Challenge

The 1996 Report from the World Resources Institute, World Bank, UNEP and UNDP projects major global challenges(1). By 2025, our current population of 5.9 billion is projected to become 8.3 billion, with most of this growth in the developing countries. Mega-cities will emerge as 90% of population growth will be in urban areas. Critical water shortages are expected. Today, humanity has not fully provided for itself. Over two billion people in developing countries live without electricity or clean drinking water. They lead lives of misery, especially women and children who walk several kilometers daily for water and firewood merely to survive.

The World Energy Council projects a doubling of primary energy demand over this same time period, driven by the population and economic growth of the developing nations (2). The 1997 Kyoto Climate Agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions by 5% from 1990 levels was limited to OECD nations. Even with this commitment, greenhouse gas emissions will certainly increase as the developing world grows economically. When these trends are studied in total, the prognosis is not healthy for billions of people or the planet.

Alternative Energy Futures

Alternate Energy Futures: 1990 (Current): 18 percent renewable, 82 percent non-renewable; 2020-Current Policies: 21 percent renewable, 79 percent non-renewable; 2020-Ecologically Driven: 31 percent renewable, 69 percent non-renewable; 2020 Economically Enhanced: 19 percent renewable, 81 percent non-renewable. Source: Renewable Energy (see reference number 8). 

Key Words: direct fuel use, alternative energy futures, global energy consumption, energy, renewable energy sources, non-renewable energy sources, world energy council, MTOE, global energy consumption MTOE, fuel, renewable fuels, non-renewable fuels, alternate energy sources

(World Energy Council demand scenarios)

Yet a solution does exist that can provide a solid foundation for sustainable development. With the expansion of HVAC and HVDC systems, the tapping of large renewable energy resources has the potential to:

  • increase the standard of living for everyone
  • reduce fossil fuel use and the resultant pollution
  • reduce deforestation, topsoil erosion, and desertification
  • reduce poverty and world hunger
  • open markets and enhance world trade
  • promote international cooperation and peace
Global Design Science

The strategy proposed in this paper is born from a unique method of inquiry -- comprehensive anticipatory design science. This approach was championed by Dr. R. Buckminster Fuller, visionary engineer, cartographer and mathematician. We argue that most problems cannot be solved in isolation, since most issues are interrelated in our global society. The problems of the world must be viewed comprehensively, planning must anticipate the trends to stay ahead of them, and then we must engineer solutions to meet both man's needs and environmental sustainability.

After thorough cataloguing of the earth's resources and assessment of human survival needs, Fuller designed the global simulation called the World GameTM. Giving world planners the potential for global thinking and solutions, this simulation set aside politics, prejudice, war and human ignorance. The purpose of the simulation is: "to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or the disadvantage of anyone."

From this broad approach to finding global solutions, it was found that the common denominator of all societal infra-systems (food, shelter, health care, sewage, transportation, communication, education, finance) is electricity. Upon further research into the electrical delivery system, it was proposed 25 years ago that the most globally economic, efficient and sustainable strategy would be to interconnect regional power systems into a continuous world electric energy grid linking renewable energy resources. This was the premier solution of the World GameTM -- and a most compelling strategy for peace and sustainable development(3).

While this global vision is still decades away, the interconnection of regional power grids is well advanced in OECD countries. In 1971, the United Nations Natural Resources Council corroborated these findings, placing special emphasis on the untapped potential of large renewable sites in the southern hemisphere(4). Leading to the Earth Summit in 1992, the United Nations Environmental Program called the energy grid solution to be "one of the most important opportunities to further the cause of environmental protection and sustainable development."(5)

Technological development moves power further and cheaper

Technological advances over the past two decades have extended the interconnection of international and inter-regional networks. Just five decades ago, electric power could only be efficiently transmitted 600 kilometers. In the 1960's, breakthroughs in materials science, improved alloys for conductors and better insulators, extended this transmission distance to 2500 kilometers. Today, research from the International Conference on Large High-Voltage Electric Systems (CIGRE) shows that the feasible and economic distance of ultra-high voltage (UHV) transmission to be 7000 kilometers for direct current and 4000 kilometers for alternating current(6). Transmission over this distance would allow for power interchange between North and South hemispheres, allowing utilities to compensate for variations in seasonal demand, as well as East and West linkages across continents and time zones. Buying and selling power is now common in all developed nations, as utilities desire to level the peaks and valleys of energy demand to save costs and increase reliability.

A Win-Win Solution to Global Problems:
Economic Benefits

Expanding and interconnecting power grids has proven to be economically desirable. In developed countries, billions of dollars are presently being saved through buying, selling and wheeling power between neighboring utilities and countries. This practice can expand even more to meet future demand. Also, the deregulation of utilities brings many new generation options, whether locally based or in a neighboring country. Savings are reflected in reduced customer costs, while expanding markets for each power producer -- a massive win-win situation.

The economic potential of UHV technology for the developing regions is immense. Some of the world's most abundant renewable potential exists in the developing continents of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Exports of these excess untapped potential could be purchased by the industrialized world, providing cheaper and cleaner power for the North, and simultaneously sending needed cash to the developing world. History shows that equitable trade engenders cooperation. Thus, long-distance transmission via grid interconnections can contribute not only to expanding international trade but also world peace and security.

Environmental Opportunity

Presently, 82% of all power generation is non-renewable, causing many of the world's most noxious environmental ills -- greenhouse gases, acid rain, toxic wastes. Yet, enormous potential for hydro, tidal, solar, wind and geothermal sites exist around the world. These renewable resources are oftentimes in remote locations. With HVAC and HVDC, these renewables are now within economical transmission distance. These renewables are critical given the projections of the World Energy Council of a doubling of primary energy demand in the next 25 years as developing countries grow economically and in population. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded man's impact on climate change, which will worsen if the WEC "business as usual" scenarios prevail. Global insurance companies are deeply concerned as weather-related property claims have tripled in the past decade(7).


Alternative Renewable Energy Future


In 1993, Johansson, Kelly, Reddy and Williams published "Renewable Energy, Sources for Fuels and Electricity."(8) This landmark work offered a major shift in how we could meet our energy requirements in the coming decades. Using the same demand projections as the WEC, the authors projected that the renewable share could increase from 20% to 60% by 2025, with roughly comparable contributions from hydropower, intermittent renewables (wind and direct solar) and biomass. They cited benefits of this scenario that are not captured in standard economic models:

  • increased economic and social development in rural areas can help reduce poverty and slow urban migration
  • land restoration through biomass growth will help prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat
  • reduced air pollution caused from the burning of fossil fuels on both transportation and power generation
  • abatement of global warming as renewable sources produce no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases
  • diversity of the fuel supply would create more inter-regional energy trade, and users would become less vulnerable to monopolies or supply disruptions
  • reducing the risks of nuclear proliferation as competitive renewables would reduce the incentive to build further nuclear supply.

Two conclusions of "Renewable Energy" are central to our argument. First, "the levels of renewable energy development indicated by this scenario represent a tiny fraction of the potential for renewable energy. Higher levels might be pursued if society, for example, should seek greater reductions of CO2 emissions." Secondly, since most of the abundant renewable energy sites are in remote areas, oftentimes in neighboring countries, "most electricity produced from renewable sources would be fed into large electrical grids and marketed by electric utilities." A key environmental question in the developed economies is that of replacing present polluting generation over the next few decades as their economic life expires. Access to remote renewables and interconnection of power grids across political boundaries opens up new economical and environmentally sustainable alternatives.

The challenge for developing nations is to bypass the old development formulas and transition to sustainable prosperity. Of critical consequence for the planet is choosing the appropriate energy path for India, China and Southeast Asia. Over half the world's 5.9 billion population lives there now, and linking renewable resources is essential if we are to reduce atmospheric emissions in the future.

It is important to remember that handling personal survival precedes environmental concern. So, while end-use efficiency is a priority in first world economies, energy efficiency and demand side management in the developing countries is difficult in times of accelerating energy demand. Providing the alternative of remote renewable energy can circumvent traditional polluting approaches to meeting energy needs, but will be limited by the availability of technology and financing. Efficiency improvements are vital but not sufficient for future trends, especially in the developing regions of the world.

It must also be noted that as a development strategy for the 2 billion who are unserved by electricity, what is needed today are small decentralized generators that can meet basic food, water and health care needs. Then as development demand increases and segments of the grid reach rural areas, the population could connect to the expanding grid network.

Sustainable options for the future

Several years ago, the IEEE/PES International Practices Committee hosted a panel session on "Tapping Remote Renewables." A summary of the expert comments present strong evidence for the intentional development of large renewable resources linked by high-voltage transmission.

Len Bateman, retired Chairman of Manitoba Hydro stated, "Over 100 interconnected lines, ranging from low voltage to 765kV, cross the border between Canada and the United States, transporting over 8000MW of electric power. The export of electricity is equivalent to the export of finished industrial products. With the export of hydroelectric power, there is no depletion on Canada's power resources. Undeveloped hydro potential in the world energy equation represents waste. If these sites are environmentally sound they represent a source of energy that can quality as a sustainable development."(9)

Potential Major Renewable Sites


A similar case is made in Africa by Professor Luigi Paris of the University of Pisa, "Transmission is the best renewable energy available today. In Europe, the Inga (Central African hydro) can be delivered at a price competitive with the energy produced with oil. The implementation of the Grand Inga project will assure to the African developing countries may social benefits. It is important to know that the exported hydroelectric energy does not reduce the potential richness of the developing country, such as the case of oil or coal exportation."(10)

Another massive renewable potential exists in many tidal sites around the world. The Siberian Energy Institute reviewed the Shelikhov Gulf in the Okhotsk Sea in eastern Russia, and found an 80GW tidal resource potential. The Kimberly region of Australia has a tidal potential of 240MW, which is eight times the current demand of the nation. Both of these locations are remote from any population centers or industry, so UHV transmission is the only way to delivery this electricity.

The Union of Concerned Scientists report on "Powering the Midwest" offers a representative example of the wind potential of many regions of the world. "Wind energy promises to be one of the least expensive and most abundant new sources of electricity for the Midwest US. The region's wind resources are second to none in the world. . . there is more than enough wind to supply all the region's electricity demand (although this would most likely be impractical)."(11) In this case the grid system is already in place.

Sanyo Electric is one of many companies working to make solar PV cost competitive. While many small scale applications for PV are in use in rural villages, Sanyo's plans call for large solar arrays in the deserts of the world connected to UHV transmission. Their studies show that an 800 km by 800 km area (just 4% of the world's deserts) would be sufficient to provide the entire electrical needs of the planet.(12)

And system planner Michael Hesse Wolfe summarized Mid-East solar potential by saying, "There is enough for all. One statistic is enough. On the Arabian peninsula there is enough solar energy every year which is equivalent to their entire petroleum reserve that ever was. Every year. . . We have an abundance of renewable energy resources on hand. It is up to us as we near the turn of the century to think seriously about developing these resources for the benefit of humanity and the planet."(13)

The question is: how do we meet the energy demands of a growing world in an environmentally sustainable manner? The electrical interconnection of large renewable energy resources around the world offers a very compelling strategy.


  1. World Resources: a Guide to the Global Environment, World Resources Institute, 1996-97
  2. World Energy Conference global energy demand projections, 1993, Tokyo, Japan
  3. Critical Path, Dr. R. Buckminster Fuller, St. Martin's Press, 1981
  4. United Nations Natural Resources Committee report to the Economic and Social Council, 1971
  5. Letter from Noel Brown, North American Director of the United Nations Environment Program, 1992
  6. CIGRE Committee 37 paper on "Present Limits of Very Long Distance Transmission Systems", 1984
  7. The Washington Post, "Who's Afraid of Global Warming?", Mark Hertsgaard, 1/21/96
  8. Renewable Energy: Sources for Fuels and Electricity, Johansson, Kelly, Reddy, Williams, Island Press, 1993
  9. International Workshop on the Economic, Environmental and Sociopolitical Impacts of Long Distance Transmission, Winnipeg, Canada 1991
  10. IEEE Power Engineering Review, panel session on Tapping remote Renewables, June 1992
  11. Powering the Midwest, a Report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 1993
  12. Sanyo Electric Project GENESIS, company literature
  13. op.cit. International Workshop, 1991

Mr. Peter Meisen
President, Global Energy Network Institute

Mr. Meisen is a graduate (1976) of the University of California, San Diego with an Applied Mechanics and Engineering Sciences Degree. In 1986, he founded Global Energy Network Institute (GENI), a non-profit organization conducting research and education on the interconnection of electric power networks between countries and continents with an emphasis on tapping remote renewable energy resources. He is a speaker and author on the global issues of renewable energy, transmission and distribution of electricity, quality of life and its relationship to electricity, the environment and sustainable development.

Technical Articles