World Web of Electricity Charged Up
Mar 9, 2007
The key to fighting climate change is for
the U.S. to take a leadership role in promoting a "new world wide web of electricity,"
according to Michael Powers, board member and spokesman for Global Energy Network
Institute, a non-profit research and education group based in San Diego.
made the comments at Stanford University's recent conference, "Energy in the Developing
World: Working toward a Sustainable Future," held on March 3, 2007. The conference
was organized by the Stanford Association for International Development (SAID)
and the Graduate School of Business.
"By connecting regional
electricity grids around the world into a global network, it will be possible
to tap new renewable resources and phase out our worst polluting coal-fired power
plants," Powers said.
Pointing out that the Earth receives
"12,000 times more energy" from the sun everyday than is used by civilization
worldwide, Powers said the problem confronting mankind is not "insufficient energy,"
but "too much energy of the wrong kind, in the wrong place, at the wrong time."
As a result, he said, the energy challenge is "not a supply problem but a distribution
problem." This, he said, is where the global network comes in.
cities' need for electricity changes drastically throughout the day, Powers explained
-- from a low after midnight to an afternoon peak. Currently about 3,000 power
plants in the U.S. must constantly be turned on and off to meet local energy needs.
Together, they produce 40% of the U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, along with 18%
of the nitrogen oxide and 60% of the sulfur dioxide.
alternative is for power companies to move excess power from one time zone to
another because that's often cheaper than turning generators on and off just to
meet peak demand," Powers said, pointing out that over 35% of all power sold in
the U.S. is now composed of bulk power transfers.
With a larger
and more robust "backbone" for energy transfers, such trading could happen at
the global level - for instance, between time zones in the U.S. and in China.
Studies show China is set to pass the U.S. as the largest emitter of CO2 in the
world and is building the equivalent of a new 1MW power plant per week - all coal-fired.
"Instead of running all of the world's generators' half the
time - which is very inefficient - we are talking about running half the world's
generators all the time. much more efficient," Powers said.
is a common misconception that long-distance energy transfers are impractical,
Powers said, explaining that in the 1930's there was a transmission limit of 350
miles. "That limit grew to 1,500 miles in the 1960's and is now well over 4,000
miles using Ultra-High Voltage and High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) technology,"
he said. In fact, southern California gets a hefty portion of its electricity
from 1,000 miles away - via a single HVDC line connecting it to hydro power from
Oregon, enough to run 2-3 million homes. "Distance is not a barrier," he asserted.
A far larger barrier is the state of the electric utility
industry. "The industry is mainly regional in scope, highly-regulated throughout
its history and with no incentive to invest in new transmission lines or long-distance
infrastructure," Powers said. Despite this fact, well over half of the transmission
system for a global energy network is already in place, Powers said, and new connections
throughout the world are gaining in momentum.
"2006 was a
banner year for global interconnections," Powers noted, reeling off a list of
new trading partners for electricity such as Russian and China, China and Vietnam,
Kenya and Ethiopia, and a new Mediterranean power pool which will reportedly link
the countries of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Libya and Iraq. "Even countries
lacking diplomatic connections can still see the advantage of electrical connections,"
Powers explained. "Or, at least, their power engineers clearly do." A key connection
still to be built is the "East-West Energy Bridge" which would connect Alaska
to Siberia via two 20-mile links across the Bering Straits. "This is the crucial
gateway to the 11 time zones of the former Soviet Union and also the new powerhouse
In the US, the California Solar Initiative (CSI)
plans to bring thousands of new solar energy systems online during the next 10
years and each of these systems represents a "new node on the global network,"
Powers said. "We are creating a new market segment of 'pro-sumers' - energy producers
during the daytime and consumers at night," he said, He argues that this will
launch a whole new industry of to supply equipment and software for managing this
energy and tracking renewable energy transactions.
an energy version of 'Napster,'" Powers said. "We're talking about peer-to-peer
energy trading where a solar homeowner in San Jose can capture kilowatts from
the sun - and sell them to a homeowner in Shanghai - instantaneously. That's the