Energy

Let's Get to Work on a Global Energy Grid

Future energy, information and transportation networks will improve productivity and reduce pollution worldwide.

Power grids should be transcontinental.

Photographer: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Globalization has fallen out of fashion. Free trade breeds inequality, the critics say. International cooperation precludes national development. Closed economies are preferable to open ones.

These statements could not be more misguided. The main reason I know this has to do not with job creation or productive employment or even global gross domestic product. It has to do with things that are much simpler and more fundamental to us all: energy, information and transportation.

These three systems underpin all other man-made networks. None of them can be understood in the context of a single nation, and today all three are on the brink of convergence. But it will be up to us, as a global community, to usher in that new reality.

At the simplest level, this will require three things: 1) agreeing that current systems cannot last; 2) recognizing the benefits of interconnection; and 3) mapping a unified plan to roll it out across the world.

Information and transportation are already well on their way to being integrated. Powered by advancements in electrification and fiber optics, as well as data analytics, automation and the internet of things, these sectors have long since progressed beyond industrial-era boundaries. Energy infrastructure, meanwhile, lags far behind. Electricity generation and transmission remain trapped within localized 20th-century grids. Geography and precedent hold this sector hostage, preventing the kind of innovation and increased productivity that information and transportation provide.

Such unbalanced development is unsustainable. Energy, information and transportation need to work together, no less so than, in the human body, our cardiovascular, nervous and musculoskeletal systems must cooperate. It's as if the bonds between our global neurons and muscle fibers have become stronger than ever, while our heart suffers from poor diet and old age.

By 2050, world population is projected to reach 9.7 billion.  The energy demands of the next three decades will be astronomical. We will need to power -- mainly cleanly -- at a scale and for a range of uses we cannot yet fully imagine. The infrastructure needed to support such a future does not exist. But with the rapid development of high-voltage transmission, smart grids and clean energy, we have at least the means to achieve a sustainable energy supply. With global energy interconnection, we can further stimulate the development of highly efficient clean energy to replace fossil fuels.

Furthermore, global energy, information and transportation networks can be integrated. This will require aligning -- on a transcontinental scale -- power grids, fiber-optic networks and major ground-transportation throughways. Such a system will enable exponential gains in productivity and efficiency. It will lower the overall cost of social development and, at the same time, transform the world economy. China has already built 93,000 charging facilities, and has installed 430 million smart meters. With 80 gigawatts of solar, 150 gigawatts of wind and 330 gigawatts of hydropower, the country has the world's largest clean energy capacity.  

What's needed now is accelerated development of a global energy network designed to support a wider range of renewable energy. The most cutting-edge ultra-high-voltage transmission technology and smart grids make it possible to carry solar energy from equatorial countries and wind power from the Arctic region to faraway places where electricity demand is high, and to coordinate the various local sources to achieve a smooth supply of clean power. The build conditions for such a network already exist; by 2050, it could become a reality, allowing the world to be powered by sustainable energy.

It is in the interest of all people everywhere to help develop global infrastructure for energy, information and transportation. Immediately and in the long-term, it will improve human productivity and efficiency and also reduce waste and pollution.

But it won't happen in isolation. Throughout the world, governments, energy providers and industry at large must take action. Just as the future is our common destiny, global integration of energy, information and transportation is our common responsibility.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Liu Zhenya at jinglin-zhou@geidco.org

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net

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