- India and Britain’s plan to connect solar power grids across borders has the potential to spur innovation and mobilize funds required by developing countries to transition to round-the-clock clean energy.
- The green grid project needs to detail out how power grids can be interconnected across nations when there are no common technical protocols, which currently differ from one country to the other.
- Interconnectivity on a sensitive sector like energy, which is often linked to national security, could run into political headwinds despite the best of intentions.
The joint initiative by India and the United Kingdom to connect the world’s electricity power grids to accelerate the transition to cleaner energy has been hailed by activists and negotiators at the ongoing United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, but experts warned there are formidable technical and political challenges to overcome before it can become a reality.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his British counterpart Boris Johnson on Tuesday unveiled plans for the first transnational network of solar power grids, known as the Green Grids Initiative – One Sun One World One Grid (GGI-OSOWOG).
The joint initiative, led by the India-headquartered International Solar Alliance and the British Green Grids program, will try linking solar grids so that parts of the world with excess renewable power can send it to areas that have deficits. Since the sun shines somewhere in the world 24/7, it could allow for renewable energy to be made available round-the-clock across nations.
The initiative intends to help investing in solar, wind and storage to support a global grid; building long-distance cross-border transmission lines and demand centers; developing latest technologies to support green grids; supporting global transition to zero-emission vehicles; attracting investment into solar mini-grids and off-grid systems; and developing market structures to attract low-cost capital, including climate finance, for global solar grid infrastructure.
“Green grid, an idea whose time has come”
“The One Sun One World One Grid and Green Grids Initiative is an idea whose time has come,” Modi said in Glasgow. “If the world has to move to a clean and green future, these interconnected transnational grids are going to be critical solutions.”
The UK has also introduced a plan called the Glasgow Breakthroughs that wants to boost clean power, among others. “What we want is to take these inventions, these breakthroughs, and get them the finance and the support they need to make sure that they are disseminated through the whole world,” Johnson said.
GGI-OSOWOG already has the support of more than 80 countries and could potentially devise a model on how wealthy nations can help developing economies reduce their emissions. The announcement, however, left cost and funding details unspecified.
In the first phase, the project will drive interconnectivity in the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia. It will then focus on African power pools and drive global green grids interconnections.
“This network has the potential to be a modern engineering marvel, and a catalyst for effectively mitigating climate change in the next decade,” Ajay Mathur, director-general of the International Solar Alliance, said in a statement.
If intentions are the only things to go by, this initiative could be a game-changer. However, power sector experts pointed to the many technical challenges that need to be sorted out before it can get off the ground.
Varying operational parameters
The operational parameters of power grids are different in different countries and cannot simply be interconnected unless common benchmarks are found, according to S.P. Gon Chaudhuri, founding member and chairman of the International Solar Innovation Council.
“Unlike sectors like aviation, for instance, power grids do not have a common international protocol when it comes to evacuation and transmission of electricity,” he said. For power grids to be interconnected across regions and nations, load dispatch centers also must be coordinated.
The technical issues by themselves would require large amounts of investment in research and development, an electrical expert said on condition of anonymity. “The project would have to bring grid operators from different countries to a table to thrash out and agree to common parameters once technical experts can devise common protocols,” he said. “The initiative is lacking in detail on these aspects.”
The idea of grid interconnectivity has its merits, Gon Chaudhuri said, but pointed out that there are issues of transmission efficiency that will have to be improved if they were to be connected across borders.
Earlier attempts at cross-border grid connectivity
There have been earlier attempts at grid connectivity, experts pointed out. For instance, the association of South Asian countries, known as SAARC, have been trying to connect grids in the region for seamless trading of conventional electricity.
But that initiative has failed to make headway, despite being in the works for more than a decade, and after agreements signed to the effect by the leaders of these countries, the electrical expert said.
Many of the technical hurdles are not too difficult to resolve since countries like India, Nepal and Bangladesh have a common electrical legacy, but a lack of political will has made this regional interconnectivity initiative a nonstarter, he said.
Given the state of progress of regional connections, “the aim of grid connectivity across continents seems like a futuristic projection, if we can’t make it work among the countries in South Asia, which face no geographical obstacles like mountain ranges or seas,” he said.
The project as has been announced makes no room for political sensitivities, a New Delhi-based observer said. “Imagine India and Pakistan connecting their power grids, overlooking national energy security issues,” he said, but declined to be named. “No political leader or party can afford such a move, even if such interconnectivity could be beneficial for all concerned.”
However, the scenario is not quite hopeless. Work can start on the technical aspects that would at a future date enable common grids, experts said. If the project can attract funding to develop solar power in tropical and sub-tropical countries, and help develop market mechanisms for power trading, it would serve a useful purpose, they said.
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Banner image: Rooftop solar in Suresh Gyan Vihar University, Jaipur. Photo by Jaipursharma /Wikimedia Commons.