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Tags: climate | solar | electricalgrid

Climate Summit Should Prioritize Wiring Up the World on Solar

two businesspeople shaking hands in front of solar panels

Paul F. deLespinasse By Tuesday, 13 April 2021 08:06 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Joe Biden recently invited 40 world leaders to a virtual climate summit. It is well that he invited Vladimir Putin, since the top of the agenda should be an agreement to wire up the world into a unified electrical grid. An obvious place to connect eastern and western hemispheres is the Bering Strait, with Russia and Alaska only 52 miles apart and the ocean depth averaging only 164 feet.  

This meeting — with each leader remaining in his or her home country — is possible only because the world is already wired up into a single communications network, the internet. 

Wiring up the world into a single electrical network will make it possible to stop using the hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) that threaten to wreck the world climate.

Solar energy harvested by photovoltaic (PV) panels has become so cheap that it is now competitive with other electricity sources. One major drawback remains: It is horribly intermittent and undependable.  

Many experts argue that we must retain conventional power plants as backup, or else develop technology to store solar energy for use at night and during bad weather. Neither of these alternatives, however, is acceptable.

Using hydrocarbon fuels only for backup would slow down destruction of the world climate, but not halt it. 

Storing electricity needed for one night might be possible. Storing enough for several days of bad weather would probably be too expensive. And storing enough to last for several months every year when the sun is low in the sky and days are short is out of the question. (The PV panels on my house generate only one-fifth as much electricity every day in the middle of the winter as they average in the summer.)

A worldwide grid is the obvious solution to the intermittency problem. It will allow electricity generated where conditions are favorable to be sent to areas where it is nighttime, the weather is bad, or it is winter. It will eliminate any need for dirty backup generators or massive storage.

When I noticed this advantage of a supergrid back in 1972, I thought it was an original idea. Recently, though, I discovered that Buckminster Fuller had the same idea 40 years earlier. It isn't easy to be original! 

When Fuller, way ahead of his time, foresaw the usefulness of a supergrid, electricity could only be transmitted a few hundred miles. Four decades later, when I began pushing the idea in 1972, the technology was making tremendous strides, and today electricity can be transmitted efficiently for thousands of miles using DC, very high voltages, and (potentially) superconducting cables. 

By 1992 Yukinori Kuvano, a leading Japanese scientist and industrial executive at Sanyo, was also making serious proposals along this line.

Peter Meisen , founder of the Global Energy Network Institute , has been working since 1989 to promote construction of a supergrid. He is now at the World Resources SimCenter.

Despite all of our efforts, the possibilities of a worldwide grid never got widespread public attention. 

Finally, in 2015, the IEEE Spectrum, a leading electrical engineering journal, ran an article by a recognized grid expert, Clark W. Gellings, proposing a worldwide supergrid and explaining why it is now both possible and desirable. The engineering establishment has now spoken!

Americans, led by Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, pioneered widespread use of electricity. Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, famously once defined Communism as "Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country." It will be appropriate for America and Russia to provide the nucleus of a worldwide supergrid, connecting the hemispheres at the Bering Strait. 

The upcoming climate summit offers the perfect time for world leaders, led by Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, to announce a project to wire up the world. 

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.

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Wiring up the world into a single electrical network will make it possible to stop using the hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) that threaten to wreck the world climate.
climate, solar, electricalgrid
Tuesday, 13 April 2021 08:06 AM
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