How A Supergrid Could Make The World A Lot Smaller and Connected
Mar 23, 2017
Patrick Plas

Anyone who has sat through the It’s A Small World ride at a Disney park knows the inspirational (if repetitive) message the animatronic dolls are singing about. We may all come from different cultures but deep down, we’re all the same. It’s a small world after all.

But outside of the Disney parks, the world is actually vast. Although we can fly to other countries easily enough or video conference over great distance, we are still essentially separated by geography— especially when it comes to electricity. One big idea that could help connect us: a common electrical grid or as it’s sometimes called, a supergrid.

A recent report from the United Nations outlined how creating an interconnected power grid, that would move electricity from one region or even country to another, could help foster peace and cooperation between nations.

That might sound like a pipedream but it’s not. The technology needed to build a global supergrid exists today in the form of High Voltage Direct Current transmission, also known as HVDC.  GE is one of the few companies in the world that can provide this system.

Currently, the majority of power grids use AC (alternating current) which moves electricity in a wave-like motion. This is useful because most of today’s consumption devices use AC, but you can’t efficiently move this form of electricity over extremely long distances. The wave-like flow causes the conductor that carries the electricity to charge and discharge very rapidly which results in an annual loss of about 10 percent of all electricity generated. HVDC solves this problem by moving the electricity in a direct current (DC) at a constant voltage which is easier on the conductor and requires less space. With HVDC, we can transport up to 3 times more electricity on conventional HV lines while reducing energy losses. The keys to making the HVDC transmission system work are the converter stations at the beginning and end of each line. At the beginning, the convertor changes the incoming AC to DC and at the other end it switches it back. That way the electricity is in the form of an alternating current when it gets to your home but it travels there as a fast moving, more efficient direct current.

GE is already supplying these converters on several HVDC lines around the world — a number of which are being used in concert with renewable power. In the United States, GE will potentially be working on an HVDC project that could take power from a wind plant in Oklahoma and deliver it to stations in Arkansas and Tennessee. And, the massive DolWin3 off-shore wind farm in Germany will use GE’s HVDC system to get power back to shore.  Other land based projects just recently demonstrated the maturity of the technology to move massive amounts of power or exceedingly long distances.  Rio Madeira in Brazil will operate at 600kV and will transmit power nearly 2,400 kilometers … the longest operational HVDC scheme in the world.  And with the Champa project in India, we are demonstrating the transmission of power over 1,365 kilometers at an even higher voltage of 800kV.

In addition, baby supergrids are already in the works all around the world. In Europe, energy providers in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands are looking into building a supergrid that would harvest wind from the North and Baltic Seas and open up a broader market for wind power. In Asia, officials in China, South Korea and Japan are considering a supergrid that would help increase renewable energy in the area, reduce electricity costs and promote cooperation between the nations.

Potential Global Supergrid

With these and other projects, the groundwork is being laid to build a global supergrid. And it would be much more than just a feel-good exercise. Joining the power grids of the world together could create the right market for renewable energies to truly take off. Right now, most renewable sources can only serve populations within a certain radius of generation and within those regions, output from those sources can be unpredictable. The sun doesn’t always shine. The wind doesn’t always blow.

A recent report from the IEEE points out that a region of Australia, south of Darwin, gets enough consistent sun that a solar farm “the size of a cattle station” could provide enough energy for the entire country. HVDC has the potential to move that energy around Australia. With an underwater link, that energy could also move to places like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Singapore. 

In addition, think of how efficient it would be to have energy from renewable sources going to where it is most needed at any given time and alternative forms of energy (hydro power, fossil fuels) available as back up.

A global supergrid could open up the electricity market to the lowest-cost form of energy at any given moment. It could also guard against blackouts. In developing countries, consistent energy can be a luxury. With a supergrid, growing nations could improve the quality of their power supply without having to build new power plants, instead leveraging the low cost of generation available through the connected network. A supergrid could also be safer and more stable. Small, localized power grids are often at risk of going offline due to storms or malfunctions. A supergrid actually helps the performance of local AC networks as well as provides additional capacity that otherwise wouldn’t be available.

We won’t get a worldwide supergrid tomorrow. Nations would need to work together toward a logical plan of connected projects as opposed to the smaller scale projects that are being built today.  But the prospect is there. We have the technology. All we need now is the will to get us to a truly small and connected world.

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Albert (not verified)
While this is a great idea in a perfect world, let's be clear and not accidentally demonize microgrids with this: "A supergrid could also be safer and more stable. Small, localized power grids are often at risk of going offline due to storms or malfunctions." It is the diversity of resources and loads that make the idea of both a "supergrid" and microgrid valuable and promising, NOT the size of the grid itself.
Jacques W (not verified)
I believe the statement "A supergrid could also be safer and more stable. Small, localized power grids are often at risk of going offline due to storms or malfunctions." is comparing a large grid with a regional or national grid, and it is not about demonizing microgrids. Supergrids and microgrids can live together and I bet it is how the future power system will look like. I have to correct you however about the fact that the size of an AC system DOES influence its stability: a larger system is more resilient to disturbances because its inertia is larger and thus the rate of change of frequency after a contingency is slower, leaving more time to contain the frequency drop. To the other extreme end, an isolated microgrid is only viable thanks to the use of fast responding energy storage sources.
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Laurent Schmitt (not verified)
While several of these interconnections do make sense to maximise social welfare at larger scales the reality shows such developments require complex political arrangements furthermore the underlying technical risk is far from being full mastered making some of these projects really complex to deploy. It seems in that scenario important not to forget other more realistic scenarios where Digital and Prosumer MicroGrids will ultimately develop within existing AC backbone where Grid operator will for sure play a key integration role. Using DC point to point to bridge these AC Grids when politics permis or or to release Grid capacity in corridors definitely makes sense however one should still question the realism of larger scale Supergrid developments.
Gus (not verified)
This is a concept well worth the effort to develop. One possible advancement that would add to its success would be the development of room temperature superconductors.
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Subhash Chauhan (not verified)
Very good article, we live in a political global economy. This can only work within small group of countries. If we can live together over the globe then it is a novel idea.
Pablo Garcia (not verified)
Excellent. This will help countries around the World, specially those countries with less resources. Thank you for the article. Pablo Garcia EnerPower, Inc.
EnerPower.Inc. (not verified)
Thank you for the fantastic article. What a great project for the World.
Jim C (not verified)
This book outlines more detailed vision on this Supergrid : "Global Energy Interconnection" by AP 2015
Ajay Jain (not verified)
Idea of supergrid transporting solar and wind energy over oceans through different time zones - we can have solar and other renewable energy around the clock! Just think of the level of CO2 emissions that can be brought down.
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Patrick Plas

Patrick Plas is General Manager, HVDC & FACTS-Grid Solutions from GE Energy Connections. He joined GE with the acquisition of Alstom Grid in 2015. Patrick joined Alstom Grid in March 2012, as Senior Vice President for Grid Power Electronics and Automation. He was also a member of the Alstom Grid Management Committee.  He began his career in Research & Development at France Telecom before being appointed Network Director for Orange Romania, based in Bucharest. He joined Alcatel in 2000 as Program Director for SFR, and took up a position in Moscow as Vice President for Mobile Networks across Central and Eastern Europe, in 2003. Patrick was appointed Vice President in charge of the company's W-CDMA (UMTS) product group in 2007, and two years later became Chief Operating Officer of the Wireless division. He was named Vice President for Advanced Communication Solutions in 2010. Patrick is a graduate of France's Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications