The Case For Free-Flowing Electrons| MENAFN.COM

Friday, 09 December 2022 04:57 GMT

The Case For Free-Flowing Electrons

(MENAFN- Asia Times)

The average human body contains some  that weigh, altogether, just 19 grams. These tiny particles should be able to cross borders more easily than the average passport-bearing person, but beyond Europe, international trade in electricity is minimal.

Yet energy insecurity and climate threats require that transnational currents – electrons – flow more readily than they do now. Could mega-projects in the Middle East help to make that happen?

Just a few years ago, the answer would have been a resounding“No.” Oil, gas and coal scoot easily around the world on ships, trains and trucks and in pipelines. Electricity needs cables, and traditionally, the high losses of current in transmission lines has limited their use over long distances.

At higher voltages, less current is lost – a 1,000-kilovolt line loses less than a quarter of the power than a typical 400-500kV system, which is the backbone of national grids. 

Direct current (DC) requires conversion at the delivery point to be usable, but it has other advantages: half the losses of alternating current (AC), less cable required, and the ability to connect systems running on different frequencies. It also avoids propagating a fault from one network to another – an important advantage for international links.

But developing ultra-high-voltage lines using DC, rather than the more familiar AC, has proved challenging.

Since 2009, though, China has been at the forefront of developing ultra-high-voltage, long-range lines, to bring electricity from its sunny, windy and coaly interior to coastal cities. This and other gains have made previously unthinkable projects plausible.

The world's longest existing subsea cable, the 720-kilometer  , which joins the electricity systems of Norway and the United Kingdom, was completed in June 2021.

Other projects have morphed from bold ideas to the mainstay of regional energy planning. While Europe has struggled to balance its ambitious plans for net-zero carbon with energy affordability and availability, continental-scale electricity grids are now seen as a way to balance out local fluctuations and daily and seasonal variations in wind and solar output.

The most notable of these is the £16 billion (US$17.3 billion)  , a plan to produce 10.5 gigawatts of renewable energy in Morocco and feed it through a 3,800km subsea high-voltage direct-current link to the UK.

The plan would take advantage of Morocco's steady sunshine and wind, and availability of open land, giving it much lower renewable generation costs than in Britain. Its southerly latitude would also help in supplying the UK with solar-generated electricity in winter. In total, Xlinks could reportedly supply up to 7.5% of the UK's total electricity needs.

Other ambitious intercontinental links in the works include  , which would connect geothermal and hydro-rich Iceland to Britain with up to 1,200km of cable, and the 20GW, 4,200km  from Darwin to Singapore.

Expensive and large-scale though they are, these projects all have serious investors backing them (even if the Australia-Asia project now appears to have taken a back seat to plans for hydrogen exports).

Two other proposed projects – the  and  Interconnectors – are modest in comparison but more practical in the short term. Part of an envisaged“energy highway,” these projects would join Israel and Egypt to Cyprus, Crete, and mainland Greece, with an intended start date of 2025.

With gas and renewable output booming in the Eastern Mediterranean, subsea cables are an alternative to subsea gas pipelines, which have struggled to gain political and economic traction. Cables would also have a longer shelf life, as Europe's decarbonization plans mean a gas pipeline would have to be converted to carry hydrogen to continue operating into the 2040s.

Within the Middle East, more modest gains have been made toward a regional electricity market. The  , which tied the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries' grids together in 2009, operates at a limited scale and doesn't yet feature commercially based electricity trading. One problem is that Saudi Arabia's grid is on 60-hertz frequency, unlike its neighbors, which are on 50Hz, requiring converter stations.

Plans to join the GCC lines with Iraq have also been hung up by commercial debates and Baghdad's political paralysis.

Better progress is being made on  and  connections, long-discussed projects that now appear to be under way. With these and other interconnections complete, electricity could one day flow from Muscat all the way to Athens.

Still, enthusiasm for such initiatives should be tempered. Outside the European Union's single market, large-scale international electricity trading hasn't taken off, primarily because of commercial barriers and concerns over supply security. Disruptions in gas and oil, which can be stored for months, are bad enough for countries; a sudden electricity shut-off would be disastrous.

Some of the proposed transmission lines would also cross contested maritime territories, like in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey all disagree on borders.

The  of 2009, which was conceived to bring renewable energy from North Africa to southern Europe, foundered on the realization that Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt had urgent energy needs of their own, not to mention internal political problems and exterior squabbles.

Even when electricity interconnectors do proceed, their economic potential should not be overstated. For instance, the EuroAfrica and EuroAsia lines would supply only 10% of peak demand in Greece, one of the EU's smaller economies, while electricity sales might earn the projects about $1 billion annually, a drop in the bucket compared with Saudi Arabia's oil exports, which bring in  . 

Mega-projects make headlines and some of them may be worth pursuing in the long term. But the more painstaking work of local electricity interconnections, and building markets and commercial relations, is what should be progressed now.

If the world is going to meet its green energy targets, both the Middle East and Europe must make it easier for electrons to slip across borders.

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