IN DEPTH: Asian grid gains backers

Mongolia's Gobi Desert could play the same role in Asia as the Sahara in Desertec

Mongolia's Gobi Desert could play the same role in Asia as the Sahara in Desertec

Political and business leaders this week backed plans by Japanese telecoms magnate Masayoshi Son to connect the countries of Northeast Asia via a regional electricity grid.

Son – the founder of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF) ­– first raised the idea of connecting Japan, Russia, South Korea, China and Mongolia in a single, cross-border electricity network in response to the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Stung by widespread public opposition to the use of nuclear energy, the Japanese authorities closed the last of the country’s nuclear power plants last September. However, it appears increasingly likely that the government will restart some of the nation’s reactors at some point this year.

“Japan’s nuclear shutdown makes this (Asia super-grid idea) more important,” Alexander Khoroshavin, governor of Russia’s Sakhalin region, said at a symposium held in Tokyo by JREF to discuss the development of a road map for a future regional grid network.

JREF is working with the Desertec Foundation – which hopes to transmit renewable energy generated in the Sahara Desert to load centres in Europe – to convince the authorities in the five nations to jointly build a Northeast Asian electricity network.

With this concept – known as Gobitec – the organisations hope to improve regional energy security and expedite the development of renewable resources by transmitting electricity generated in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert via high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines to resource-poor countries such as Japan and South Korea.

“Now abundant wind and solar resources are proving to be so much more efficient and low-cost in some areas that it can justify significant investments in transmission capacity over thousands of kilometres,” JREF executive chairman Tomas Kåberger told energy-industry professionals and reporters at a briefing in central Tokyo.

"This will open up the large penetration of renewable resources like wind and solar into the electricity systems."

JREF thinks the terawatts of potential PV and wind resources in Mongolia and northern China’s Gobi Desert region could be harnessed for mutual economic gain. A developing economy such as Mongolia could benefit from the jobs created by the rapid rollout of renewables, while richer economies such as Japan and South Korea are hungry for cheaper electricity.

“I believe that an Asian super-grid could have potential benefits for regional development,” said Davaadorj Delgertsogt, state secretary of the Mongolian energy ministry. “Mongolia will support it at the policy level.”

Last June, Clean Energy Asia – a joint venture between Mongolian investment firm Newcom and SB Energy, the renewables arm of SoftBank – connected a 50MW wind farm to the grid in Mongolia. Clean Energy president Tsakhia Elbegdorj has said that the project, which is Mongolia’s only such installation, is the first of a series of wind farms and PV plants that the company plans to build.

“There is a clear need to increase renewables, so we must stabilise electricity supplies and (address) the intermittent nature of such resources – and this will do that,” said Hiroya Masuda, chairman of the Japan Policy Council.

“The first step is this power grid. We need to discuss this and make it a reality.”

At the moment, regional political uncertainty is the biggest – but perhaps not insurmountable – obstacle to the development of an Asian super-grid, said JREF's Kåberger, a former director general of the Swedish Energy Agency.

"The benefits of large grids are not something that occur only within countries... so it's encouraging to hear this commitment from participants from countries such as Korea and particularly Mongolia. The political benefits of cooperation are significant – and should politically be within reach."

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