The European Union’s scientific research centre has explored the idea of linking the power grids of Europe and China, in order to tap into the immense clean energy potential of the Middle Kingdom and the countries of Central Asia.
An in-depth study by the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) into a transcontinental electricity link has mapped three potential routes, in a hypothetical scenario that tries to balance maximum renewable energy exploitation with avoiding conflict zones and harsh terrain.
The idea was first floated by the Chinese in 2016 as part of its Belt and Road development strategy, as one solution to dealing with industrial overcapacity and exporting growing engineering expertise. But it is the JRC that has delved into the detail of the project.
Its comprehensive study reveals that the link could cost anything between €15 billion and €28 billion depending on the chosen route, how many countries are crossed and if pricey underwater cables are needed. Even cheaper overhead cables come in at roughly €2 million per kilometre.
Although the idea is currently consigned to the back pages of the report, it raises legitimate questions about how to connect regions rich in clean energy potential to areas of the world that sorely need to cut their reliance on fossil fuels and still meet high energy demands.
Hydro, solar and wind power are all viable options in many of the countries of Central Asia and thanks to relatively sparse populations, investment in capacity and infrastructure could make the region an energy exporter and go some way to meeting commitments made in the Paris Agreement, the report says.
The Mission of China to the EU told EURACTIV that “all research work and other kinds of efforts initiated by the European side with the purpose of exploring potential cooperation areas” was welcome.
China continues to build renewable energy capacity in quantities that far outstrip Europe. The Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River is still the largest hydroelectric power station in the world and its solar capacity topped 100GW last year, smashing a 2020 target three years early.
Given China’s track record of building massive infrastructure projects, the JRC‘s study assumes that Beijing would be capable of constructing a transmission link that could stretch anything from 5,000 to 8,000 km.
Plans are already in motion to connect the northwest of the country with the energy-intensive industrial hubs of the east and urban areas of the south.
Energetic Silk Road
The JRC’s first scenario maps the shortest link, which would start in China’s renewables-rich northwest, before crossing Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. The study cites existing infrastructure that could be upgraded, relatively flat terrain and proximity to Mongolia’s abundant wind energy as big positives.
But the main negative of the route is that it would have to pass through Russia and eastern Ukraine. The political situation and ongoing conflict mean that construction would be all-but impossible for some time.
There are also doubts about whether Russia would be interested in granting essential permits given that it would reduce Europe’s need for imported gas, which Moscow continues to use as leverage against Europe.
Indeed, the JRC’s experts warned that if the link were brought online, it could also be used as a political tool to build dependency if not regulated or managed correctly.
The second scenario bypasses Russia and Ukraine by crossing the Caspian and Black seas. It also traverses more areas that could be exploited for clean energy.
But the need for submarine cables, extra regulatory barriers in more countries and greater energy losses due to the longer cable count against the route.
The third, and longest route, is quite different, in that it starts in southwest China and makes its way to Europe via Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. The challenges posed by the terrain are significant but the potential to tap into varied sources of clean energy are equally rewarding.
The study acknowledges that existing infrastructure west of India is poor at best but suggests that the route would help incorporate those countries, previously thought of as marginal, into the energy transition and boost their economies.
Due to the fact the transmission network would cross several timezones regardless of what route would be picked, the JRC’s experts pointed out that it would increase the flexibility of the systems connected to the linkages as peak loads vary depending on local habits and time.
For example, energy that would otherwise be wasted in one country due to lack of demand late at night could be sent through the grid to another country where needs are greater in the early evening.
The JRC ultimately did not pick a favoured option of the three but stressed that if the idea were ever to be seriously considered, the chosen route would have to maximise exposure to RES potential in order to justify its existence, take into account the trade benefits and strive to avoid conflict areas.
More than just a nice idea?
Energy and climate expert Jørgen Knud Henningsen told EURACTIV that the idea of a transcontinental cable was an interesting one but explained that linking markets together only makes sense if they are different to one another.
Henningsen, who was senior EU negotiator during the Kyoto Protocol talks, said that both the EU and China will use whatever renewable energy they produce domestically for the foreseeable future, meaning such an expensive export mechanism does not make sense.
Although acknowledging that China could export its clean energy if offered a high enough price in Europe, Henningsen pointed out that Beijing would continue to prioritise linking its renewable energy capacity with industries and cities or even neighbouring countries like Russia or India.
SolarPower Europe, a trade association, said the study was “fascinating”, adding that the idea “shows the wide-ranging possibilities for bringing about a clean energy world”.
But the trade association also insisted that the EU “must first develop our own internal energy market and make it fit for renewables” and that local power and community energy projects should be the top priority.
Negotiators are currently locked in talks on the EU’s renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy governance rules for the 2020-2030 period and will soon start hashing out a reform of the electricity market too.
In the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) negotiations, the European Parliament is hoping to convince the Commission and member states that a 35% non-binding target for 2030 is the best way to boost renewable energy’s share of the energy mix.
But the Council is still backing a 27% figure. The Parliament could potentially rely on the Commission to help fight its corner though as energy and climate Commissioners Maroš Šefčovič and Miguel Arias Cañete have indicated that at least 30% could be affordable.
The EU executive still officially backs a 27% benchmark, calculated prior to the signing of the Paris Agreement and finalised before the price of renewables began to significantly decrease, but EU sources claim the Commission will raise its level of ambition, backed up by a non-paper circulated in early March
While the idea of electricity cables stretching from China, possibly through the Himalayas, under seas and across wind-swept steppes may seem far-fetched, there is a precedent for the EU investing in transcontinental links or, at the least, massive infrastructure.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany is steeped in political wrangling but its backers are still pressing on with securing permits and convincing national governments that it is the best solution to the EU’s energy demands.
The European Investment Bank has also invested billions in the Southern Gas corridor, a massive network of pipelines that is meant to bring gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe. Last week, the European Investment Bank (EIB) announced nearly a billion for the Turkish leg of the project.
Now that the EU is slowly prioritising electricity connections as the true way to complete its Energy Union and ensure security of supply, including financing an undersea cable between France and Ireland, the idea of linking up with China could eventually gain traction.
The challenges are immense and, as things stand, might outweigh the benefits. But in a changing world, it could become a reality if the renewable energy revolution keeps going from strength to strength.