The Sustainable Energy Industry Journal
Issue 2 Autumn 1996
Linking renewable energy resources around the world: A compelling global strategy
By Peter Meisen, President, Global Energy Network International (GENI)
The relationship of electricity, and especially electricity based on the planet's income energy (renewable resources) over capital resources (non-renewable resources), was discovered over two decades ago by inventor, scientist and mathematician, R. Buckminster Fuller. Based on his thorough cataloguing of the earth's resources and assessment of human survival needs.
Fuller designed a global simulation called the World Game. To give the world planners the potential for global thinking and solutions, this simulation set aside politics, prejudice, war and human ignorance. From this broadest approach to the global systems, it was realized that the common denominator of all societal infrasystems (food, shelter, health care, sewage, transportation, communication,education, finance) is electricity. Upon further research into the parameters of electrical systems, Fuller proposed that the most globally economic, efficient and sustainable strategy would be to interconnect regional power systems into a single, continuos world electric energy grid linking renewable energy resources. This interconnection of regional power grids became the highest priority objective of the World Game simulation. In 1971, the United States Natural Resources Council corroborated these findings, but the Cold War politics suppressed any real international progress until recently. Leading to the earth summit in 1992, the United Nations Environmental Program called the energy grid "one of the most important opportunities to further the cause of environmental protection and sustainable development."
While this global vision is still years away, technological advances over the past two decades have made the linking of international and inter-regional networks feasible today. Already 50 nations are linked with neighboring countries, predominantly throughout Eastern and Western Europe, and North America.
Thirty years ago, electric power could only be efficiently transmitted 600 kilometres. Breakthroughs in materials science from the NASA programme extended this transmission distance to 2,500 kilometres. Today, research from the International Conference on Large High-Voltage Electric Systems (CIGRE) shows that the efficient distance of ultra-high voltage (UHV) transmission is 7,000 kilometres for direct current and 4,000 kilometres for alternating current. 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.
Expanding and interconnecting power grids has proven 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, 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 this 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 to world peace and security.
Presently, 82 percent 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 exists around the world. These renewable resources are often in remote locations. Now they are within economical transmission distance. These are now critical, given 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 confirmed the greenhouse effect, which will worsen if "business as usual" scenarios prevail. Glob al insurance companies are deeply concerned as weather-related property claims have tripled in the past decade. These sustainable, renewable alternatives are strategic, untapped resources.
A key environmental question in the developed economies is that of replacing present polluting generation over the net few decades as their economic life expires. Access to remote renewables and interconnection of power grids across political boundaries opens up new economic and environmentally sustainable alternatives. The challenge for developing nations is to bypass the old development formulas and transition to sustainable prosperity.
It is important to remember that handling personal survival precedes environmental concern. So while end-use efficiently is a priority in first-world economies, energy efficiency and demand side management in the developing countries is deficiency 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. Of critical consequence for the planet is choosing the appropriate energy path for India, China and Southeast Asia. Over half of the world's 5.7 billion population lives here now, and linking renewable resources is essential if we are to reduce atmospheric emissions in the future.
The daily figures are daunting. Today, our planet increased by 235,000 people, and 35,000 children died of hunger and hunger related diseases. Comparative trend analysis shows striking improvements in all major societal indicators as electricity becomes available for developing societies. The energy threshold for a society moving from daily survival to decent living standards is about 2,000 kWh/capita/year. When food and health care systems are sustained, infant mortality rates decrease, as do birth rates. The average life expectancy of 50 years for many developing nations would also increase. When fewer children die from hunger related causes, fewer "insurance births" are required to ensure care for the elderly. Projections that the population explosion would plateau and widespread hunger end when the energy grid is in place appear to have merit.
It must be noted that as a development strategy, what is needed today in the initial phase in most villages are small decentralized generators that can meet basic food, water and health needs. Then, as development demand increases and segments of the grid reach rural areas, the population could connect to the expanding grid network.