The Revolutionary Impact of Sun Cable on World Power
It sounds impossible.
Build the world’s largest solar panel array of 10 gigawatts (GW) deep in the Outback of Australia –so large it would be visible from space. The power plant would then be connected to the world’s largest battery facility (30 GW) in the coastal city of Darwin via a 750-kilometer cable. Then the power would be transported as needed along a 3,700-kilometer-long high voltage undersea cable to supply Singapore with up to 20% of its annual energy needs.
Impossible, sure, but the $16B project has attracted the support of two Australian billionaires, raised its initial capital for design and engineering planning, received government approvals, and construction of the 12,000-hectare solar farm is planned to commence in 2023.
Recent advancements in technology for alternative energy production, storage and transmission has made such big dreams feasible and signal the death knell for the Age of Oil.
Even with current depressed price levels of oil and gas, the cost of producing energy from solar and wind have fallen to comparable levels and are likely to continue to get cheaper as economies of scale ramp. And that is without taxation on greenhouse gas emissions which are being initiated, or are incrementally rising in many industrialized nations. These trends are of great concern for those in the legacy hydrocarbon industries.
With the cost advantage removed, the remaining argument for large-scale burning of oil, gas and coal to generate electricity is that solar and wind power is ‘intermittent’ and cannot be counted upon at all times like ‘dispatchable’ sources that are always available to reliably power commerce and industry. Improved battery storage technology, and long-distance transmission systems of green electricity kicks out the last leg of logic supporting the reliance on burning hydrocarbons to underpin our modern economy.
Sun Cable’s audacious plan to ship green energy overseas is actually only evolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature. Canada has long been a large exporter of excess hydro-produced electricity to the US. Additional power plants coming on-line in the Great White North have led to net electricity exports doubling to 60 terawatt hours in the decade ending 2017. However, this power trade has usually been carried over land and for relatively short distances to the large American cities sited near the US/Canadian border.
In the 1970s the Norwegians began shipping hydro-generated electricity via undersea cable to Denmark. This relatively short transit proved the concept and in 2007, the NorNed 580-kilometer, 0.7 GW capacity cable was completed from Norway to the Netherlands. The NordLink cable of similar length and double the capacity is expected to go into operation this year that links to northern Germany. In 2021 the North Sea Link cable from Norway to the United Kingdom is expected to be finished. This will be the longest operating power cable in the world at more than 725 kilometers and have a similar capacity of 1.4 GW.
Canadian or Norwegian hydro power is relatively ‘dispatchable’ as more water can be released as needed to run through generator turbines at a reservoir behind a dam whenever demand spikes (as long as there is enough water on hand — not frozen in the winter, or depleted through release).
Once the concept of marrying excess alternative power supplies to modern long-distance transmission systems becomes a reality, the opportunities are not just for a rapid increase in electricity exports, but also for two-way transmission of intermittent alternative power between regions.
Consider the following two maps:
The first darker colored map shows average wind resources across Europe. The second depicts photovoltaic solar energy potential across the continent.
Once it is feasible to transmit large supplies of electricity from Norway to the UK, there is no reason that solar power from Sardinia can’t be sent via undersea cable to the industrial region of northern Italy. Similarly, windfarms from southern France could supply Paris and its environs, offshore wind from the Baltic can light up Warsaw, etc.
But what could be even more game-changing is the two-way flow of alternative energy. Consider that sunny Spain is increasingly installing solar panel farms across the country. At the same time, windy Ireland has been erecting large numbers of wind turbines. The problem is that there is much less wind in Ireland in the spring and summer and not as much sun in Spain in the winter. The obvious solution is a cable from northern Spain to southern Ireland. Excess winter wind power can be sent south and excess spring solar power can head north, significantly increasing the usefulness and return on capital for such a transmission project. Similar logic works for the United States:
Again, the first map depicted shows wind resource potential and the second that of solar irradiation. It is quite obvious that America is well endowed with opportunities to generate its electricity by harnessing the wind and the sun. Two factors jump out when reviewing these maps and considering where population densities are greatest in the US.
First there is a huge amount of potential electricity to be generated from offshore wind farms from the coast of Maine to North Carolina. Several projects with more than 5 GW of capacity are in various stages of planning and construction from Massachusetts to Maryland (don’t worry, they are 10–30 miles offshore so no fancy vacation homes will have their views harmed).
Secondly, the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas can be serviced with short cable runs from solar farms sited adjacent to these urban areas. LA’s proposed giant Eland project in Kern County and the even larger Gemini facility to supply Nevada residents are both expected to be up and running by 2023.
Two-way connections also make sense in the US. Daytime sun power from Florida could be sent north to Pennsylvania with wind-generated electricity heading back south in the evening. Arizona sun and Colorado wind are well matched as is the wind of the Great Lakes and the sun of west Texas. (As an aside, why exactly does Hawaii still import coal and petroleum to generate electricity?)
We are now entering a new age of power. The Oil Age is ending. Petro-dictators in the Persian Gulf and their hydrocarbon company partners are on the decline. Generating power from solar and wind is now as cheap, or even cheaper than that produced by polluting the atmosphere with burning coal, petroleum and natural gas. Improved battery and transmission technology means that not only can green energy be sent from where it is produced to where it is needed, but also that such electricity lines can move power between paired regions with strong complementary green energy production capacity to reduce intermittency issues inherent in the new cleaner technologies.
A major infrastructure boom is coming. As current hydrocarbon plants age and are retired they will be replaced with wind, solar and geothermal plants that are attached to battery storage systems and long-distance power transmission lines. A lot of jobs, a cleaner environment and energy independence awaits.
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