As climate scientists forecast the dire consequences of global warming, and renewable energy becomes cheaper and cheaper to produce, there's a growing movement to create a global power grid fueled by clean energy.
This "internet" of electricity - linked by a globe-spanning network of high-voltage power lines - could harness cheap solar power from China's Gobi Desert to charge electric cars in California. Or tap geothermal reserves in El Salvador to meet peak electricity demand in London.
China is leading the charge for global energy interconnection or GEI. It's already invested billions of dollars in high-voltage power lines to connect far-flung renewable power sources like the Gobi Desert with its booming coastal cities.
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Now, a China-led coalition called the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) intends to develop an Asia Super Grid that would interconnect large swaths of China, Russia and Japan.
GEIDCO hopes the Asia Super Grid will become the first piece in a global energy puzzle. The State Grid Corporation of China, one of the chief backers of GEIDCO, predicts that every country will have its own super grid by 2030, and that the global energy "internet" will be completed by 2050 and powered by 80 percent clean energy.
"The idea of a 'super grid' is so appealing because you can invest more highly in areas with the greatest and cheapest renewable energy potential without worrying about how to use it," said Jaquelin Cochran with the National Renewal Energy Laboratory.
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Right now, that's one of the biggest challenges facing regional electrical grids that want to go green - how to use excess bursts of power from wind and solar. Running a power grid is all about equalizing supply and demand. If it's a particularly sunny or windy day, a smaller grid won't be able to use all of that excess energy and it's wasted.
"The wind is there and the sunlight is there and you don't add it to the grid. You just don't use it," said Cochran, which explains why smaller grids are hesitant to invest in more renewable power sources.
But a super grid doesn't have to worry about wasting power. If production is high in one part of the grid, the excess energy could be shipped halfway across the world where production is low. With a globally connected grid, you could install endless fields of wind turbines in the arctic or a ring of solar farms around the equator and supply enough clean energy to power the world's biggest cities.
Of course, such a global energy grid would require immense investments in high-voltage power lines and unprecedented levels of political cooperation. Cochran says that regional power grids in the United States can't even coordinate to more efficiently share resources. What are the odds that Russia and China and the United States could put aside geopolitical feuds to collaborate on a project of this scale? The Brexit vote and the U.S. election point to a trend toward inward-looking nationalism, not global goodwill.
Maybe it will take a juicy economic carrot to get politicians motivated. According to estimates from China's State Grid, high-voltage power lines from northwest China to Germany could provide clean energy for $0.12 per kilowatt-hour, which is half the cost of generating the same renewable power in Germany.
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