June 7, 2018 Read More →

China envisions a global electricity grid not unlike the Internet

Financial Times ($):

In Laos, in Brazil, in central Africa and most of all in China itself, ultra high-voltage cable technology that allows power to be commercially transported over vast distances with lower costs and increased load is justifying the construction of massive power projects. It is dubbed the “intercontinental ballistic missile” of the power industry by Liu Zhenya, its biggest backer and for a decade the president of State Grid, China’s powerful transmission utility.

UHV allowed China to binge on dam building in its mountainous hinterland, then transport the power thousands of kilometers to its wealthy, industrial east coast. But by enabling this, and other projects, UHV has left western China with such a glut of power that Mr. Liu in 2016 proposed using the technology to export power as far away as Germany.

Now Mr Liu is promoting UHV internationally through his Global Energy Interconnection initiative. Designated a “national strategy” and championed by Xi Jinping, China’s president, the initiative feeds into one of China’s most ambitious international plans — to create the world’s first global electricity grid. “All of this fits in with Beijing’s goals of expansion and being a global standard setter,” says Erica Downs, an expert on China and energy at Columbia University. “It is also linked to China’s intention to become an advanced industrial superpower. There is a big prestige element in this.”

Advocates stress that this does not mean China would control the resulting grid but networks would be linked to allow better cross-regional allocation of power surpluses. It is no coincidence that this would resolve the problem of “trapped” power resulting from some of China’s mega construction projects in countries like Laos that lack a big enough domestic market.

Some western observers see a geopolitical strategy on a par with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a grand design that seeks to boost Chinese-led infrastructure investment in more than 80 countries around the world.

“While there is certainly a commercial explanation for China’s rapid expansion in the power sector, it should also be recognized that Beijing is known to intertwine its economic, diplomatic and strategic initiatives,” says Andrew Davenport, chief operating officer at RWR Advisory, a Washington-based consultancy. “Part of the explanation for its expansion in this area is, therefore, likely the influence — and soft power gains — that accompanies increased control over an industry so fundamental to the everyday lives of citizens.”

Chinese companies have announced investments of $102bn in building or acquiring power transmission infrastructure across 83 projects in Latin America, Africa, Europe and beyond over the past five years, according to RWR. Adding in loans from Chinese institutions for overseas power grid investments brings the total to $123bn.

Throw in all power-related Chinese deals overseas, including investments and loans to power plants as well as grids, and the number almost quadruples. Between 2013 and the end of February 2018, total overseas power transactions announced reached $452bn, up 92 per cent from 2013 levels, according to RWR, which strips out of its calculations deals that are announced only to be subsequently cancelled.

Officials and power industry analysts in China insist that it would be too simple to assume that such investments are all slated to be rolled up into a single international grid to achieve the GEI goal, which Mr Liu recently described as similar to the internet: global but not controlled by a single country.

More ($): China eyes role as world’s power supplier

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