There is a path for renewable energy cooperation through the development and then interconnection of a North American and an Asian renewable super-grid. That’s in the mutual long-term interest of the United States and China.
Solar energy alone can “lead to full power availability all year round” by linking continental-scale renewable energy systems with a 13-hour or more time difference according to a detailed January 2022 article in Scientific Reports by Cong Wu, Xiao Ping Zhang, and Michael Sterling.
A 13-hour or more time differential is an effective way to take advantage of the rotation of the earth to provide reliable energy from the sun as well as from the wind on transcontinental scales. As the sun sets at 6 PM in California, it’s 10 AM the next morning in Beijing. Solar energy alone can provide energy 24/7/365 by an interconnected Asian and North American super-grid.
This resolves the issue of what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind does not blow. This is supported by large amounts of hourly data for sun and wind production. Solar could do the job alone but in reality will combine solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and more renewable energy resources.
An undersea cable connection across the Bering Straight, only 52 miles wide with an average depth of 160 feet, can link the Asian and North American super-grids. Supers-grids reduce the need for large amounts of energy storage and backup power. The larger the scale, the more efficient the use of renewable energy and the more cost-effective.
Asian and North American super-grid interconnection can represent the capstone of global renewable energy development led by the United States and China. These are the world’s two largest economies, the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, and the two largest installers of solar energy systems. Cooperative and continental-scale renewable energy development led by China and the United States is the basis for effective and timely global greenhouse gas displacement and climate change mitigation.
Super-grids are an engine for sustainable global economic growth that leads to ecological improvement and the fulfillment of the China Dream and the American Dream. Led by U.S. and China., inviting participation by all, we can build a larger, sustainable, and just global economy. This will benefit all the world’s people and rest on a global convergence on sustainable norms and justice and fairness for all. The 21st century can become a time not just for preventing global climate catastrophe but representing the movement toward a global ecological civilization.
It’s time for President Xi and President Biden to take the initiative and embrace the promise of cooperative development of interconnected continental-scale renewable grids. This can become a key feature of long-term U.S. and China relations because it is in the essential best interest of both nations. This does not remove various tensions and competitive rivalries between China and the United States, but it recognizes that continental-scale renewable grids are a tool for climate change mitigation and advancing global prosperity and a basis for long-term cooperation, not conflict.
2022 saw several steps by China and the United States in advancing greenhouse gas displacement goals. In 2022, China promulgated a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2035. In 2022, the United States passed the Inflation Reduction Act with major climate change plans and programs.
Working on building and interconnecting an Asian and North American super-grid as a global model is a preeminent example of China and the U.S. pursuing mutually beneficial cooperation as the most efficient and cost-effective means of accelerating the transformation to a 100% renewable energy world.
Solar-based continental scale grids with wind and hydro have three crucial advantages:
1. Solar is a globally available technology that can be installed as single panels or as solar farms or above parking lots, or on roofs, or as dual-use agriculture solar above pasture and crops. Each panel contributes to global greenhouse gas displacement.
2. Solar can be installed quickly. It has lead times of week to months. It is in operation many years before large-scale wind farms.
3. Solar costs continue to decrease as solar’s efficiency in turning sunlight into electricity continues to increase. Fossil fuels can not compete with zero-fuel-cost renewables. Continental-scale renewable energy systems reduce the amount of energy storage required.
Cooperation is the path to reducing the costs of global renewable transformation, increasing efficiency and facilitating investment and sharing knowledge with the developing world. This is essential to meet the global renewable challenge and to help end global poverty in the context of social and ecological justice. For China and the U.S., this can be manifest in a cooperative expansion of the Belt and Road initiative and U.S. AID efforts.
On a less-than-continental scale, as a first step, a mixture of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and tidal combined with storage can do the job for 100% renewables. There are no reliable data from many years on global sun and wind daily hourly output. The Journal Nature Communications Oct. 2021 article “Geophysical constraints on the reliability of solar and wind power worldwide” uses 39 years of hourly solar and wind data (1980–2018) to analyze the ability of solar and wind resources to meet electricity demand in 42 countries, varying and optimizing the mix of renewable generation as well as energy storage capacity.
National and regional efforts are steps toward linked continental scale grids to reach greenhouse gas reduction goals, but ultimately to facilitate the removal of excess carbon dioxide from air and ocean through natural sequestration on land and sea and in biomass. Eventually, we can return the atmosphere to preindustrial carbon dioxide levels below 300 parts per million.
These are the fruits of humanity acting self-consciously as part of the co-evolutionary processes of the biosphere in a healing response to excess, to all influences, that has enabled life to respond to periodic mass extinctions and once again thrive. This will not be accomplished by “degrowth” and a return to an imagined pre-industrial past.
Instead, we need to embrace smart growth that sends clear price signals for sustainability combining new market rules, regulations, and laws that make sustainable goods and services cheaper, gain market share, become more profitable, and facilitate markets operating without polluting, depleting, and ecologically damaging externalities.
The costs of failing to seize the initiative
The world faces an existential threat of climate disaster that affects all nations, the rich and the poor. 2022 was a year of worsening climate disasters globally. Depending on your location we were subjected to unprecedented floods, drought, hurricanes and tropical cyclones, wildfires, mudslides, heat waves, and even record snows from the weakening of the Arctic polar vortex. Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions still continue to increase.
If we do not take aggressive measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions we increasingly risk releasing irreversible global geophysical forces. We cannot refreeze melting permafrost on land and sea beds releasing gigatons of methane. We cannot refreeze the ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer absorbing and not reflecting sunlight.
Reality, not posturing and political rivalries, must inform the policies and programs pursued by the United States and China essential to the long-term self-interest of both nations and to the world community. It’s not a coincidence that China and the United States are the world’s two largest economies and the two largest greenhouse gas emitters. They are also the world’s leaders in building renewable energy capacity.
By far the direst long-term threat to China and the U.S. and to civilization is the global consequences of climate change. If unmitigated, the consequences of climate change will represent not simply an enormous cost, but an irresistible pathway to collapse. China and the U.S., by working cooperatively, can vastly improve our chances not only to escape disaster but make global economic growth a constructive force leading to ecological improvement.
Shape of the super-grid
Building a North American and an Asian super-grid does not mean just a reliance on giant solar and wind farms and high voltage DC power lines. It also means distributed solar energy on roofs, over parking lots, along and above highways, as dual-use agricultural solar above pasture and crops. Each solar panel contributes to the global renewable energy transformation. While continental scale super-grids can embrace solar as a basic tool, it will include other renewables.
A global renewable energy system is emerging. It combines primary generation from solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal, biomass with energy efficiency and green hydrogen, and a variety of further renewably driven non-polluting tools. These include energy efficiency measures that can improve energy efficiency by an order of magnitude. Green hydrogen produced by renewably powered electrolyzers that split water into hydrogen and oxygen becomes a tool to power combustion turbines to meet peak power demands and to replace natural gas in existing pipelines. Continental grids will optimize a mixture of energy storage, micro-grids and smart distribution networks, high voltage DC transmission.
The future continental scale renewable grid will be a combination of city and town and scale micro-grids with their own generation and storage resources providing some, but not all, of their energy and storage needs. Micro-grid feeder(s) will separate from the larger grid if voltage and frequency are more than 5% outside of operational norms and serve some, but not all, of the micro-grid, needs using its generation and storage resources. Large-scale system renewable power will combine with distributed generation and storage. There is always a dynamic balance between generation, storage, and improved efficiency, and between distributed storage and system storage.
We have not yet fully appreciated the enormous capabilities of distributed storage. We need to take advantage of the increasingly large numbers of electric vehicles providing available stored power to the grid. New York City residents, for example, own 2 million automobiles. When fully charged, current EV batteries on average can supply 66 kWh of electric power. This represents a maximum potential of 132,000 megawatt hours (mWh).
Assume when EVs are the norm, just 10% of autos are not on the road, and are fully charged and connected to the grid, each capable of providing 50% or 33kwh to the grid. This means 6,600 mWh is available for grid changing. This is about equal to the total New York City 2020 daily electric demand from February to April. This represents a fundamental shift not just in storage, but in supply with renewables providing the charging power.
EVs operate with much higher efficiency than the internal combustion engine. A much higher percentage of electric power turns the wheels which are also designed to recover energy from recuperative braking. The equivalent cost of operating an EV is equal to $1.00 a gallon of fossil fuels. Not yet fully monetized, the value of EV storage to the grid will represent substantial income flows to EV owners, further reducing net operating costs substantially below $1.00 per gallon equivalent.
The politics of 2022 and 2023
2022 reflected an increase in political tension between the United States and China with talk of a new cold war and increased military spending by both nations. In 2022, the Biden administration committed $1.7 trillion dollars for industrial development in the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Chips and Science Bill to combat climate change and reverse the decline of U.S. high technology industrial leadership. Producing state-of-the-art chips are goals also pursued aggressively by China and the European Union.
But the United States also adopted Commerce Department regulations and export license requirements focused on China. These could be used to limit the ability of China to fulfill its high technology development goals, particularly attempting to limit China’s development and use of the latest 3 nano-meter microchips. This is a clear signal that the U.S. feels threatened by China’s planned intentions to become the global technological leader in many key 21st-century fields such as robotics, quantum computing, and, biotechnology.
Taking these steps, if actually implemented by the U.S., will lead China to use its substantial intellectual and engineering resources to accelerate an import substitution strategy. In the long run, this will likely enhance, not retard, China’s productive abilities and thus accelerate the emergence of new Chinese-developed technologies and innovations.
2023 is the time for President Biden and President Xi to exert global leadership. Military conflict between China and the U.S. would be a global catastrophe. Confidence-building measures can be undertaken by China and the United States that make it clear that our rivalry will be political and diplomatic and not military.
The embrace by President Biden and President Xi of the cooperative pursuit of linked continental-scale renewable grids can reflect the wisdom of both leaders. A commitment to undertake global leadership in the development of continental-scale renewable grid construction will not only reduce the threat of climate disaster but put us on the path toward building a global, sustainable ecological civilization.
It’s us to our leaders to seize the opportunity. It’s time for both the United States and China to understand our challenges are not military but can be transformed by the pursuit of collective and global self-interest. “Nothing else in the world, not all the armies is so powerful and that is an idea whose time has come” as Victor Hugo sagely noted. The global pursuit of renewable energy is approaching that inflection point.
Solar Alone Can Provide 100% Energy Using Continental Links with 13-Hour Time Difference:
Wu, C., Zhang, XP. & Sterling, M. Solar power generation intermittency and aggregation. Sci Rep12, 1363 (2022).
Solar and Wind Can Meet all Energy Needs in 42 Countries Studied: Dan Tong, David J. Farnham, Lei Duan et. al., 2021. “Geophysical constraints on the reliability of solar and wind power worldwide.” Nature Communications. October 22, 2021.
New York City Car Use, Electricity Demand and EV Storage Batteries: U.S. EIA, 2020. “Daytime electricity demand in New York City most affected by COVID-19 mitigation actions.”. May 22, 2020.