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Unlocking a Renewable Grid: The Power of Transcontinental Electricity Trading

Image credit: Anthropocene Magazine

Move over energy independence; the key to a sustainable grid is found in the realm of transcontinental electricity trading.

Sources of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, face challenges due to their inherent variability. This variability, both over time and space, complicates the transition to a 100% renewable electric grid. However, a recent analysis suggests that a solution could lie in a global network of high-speed power lines, enabling renewable sources to effectively meet the world’s power needs.

While transcontinental trade in electricity is not a new concept, this study is the first to examine how such trade could contribute to a 100% renewable power system on a detailed scale, considering both demand and supply factors. The researchers analyzed hour-by-hour electricity demand and renewable supply worldwide for 2050, factoring in the limited space available for renewable energy development.

The study compared a scenario where each country generates and consumes electricity only within its borders to one where electricity is freely traded within six global regions. The findings indicate that if all feasible renewable energy sites are utilized, electricity sourced within each country would fall only 2% short of global demand in 2050. However, transcontinental trade could further reduce the cost of electricity by 5-52%, depending on the region.

In a scenario where only the top 10% of global renewable energy sites are developed, domestic renewable energy would fall 12% short of meeting global annual demand. Transcontinental power pools would, however, bridge this gap and reduce the cost of electricity by up to 23% compared to a domestic-only situation.

The research challenges the notion that 100% renewable electricity requires long-term storage, demonstrating its reliability and economic feasibility through expanded transmission lines within continents. In 2020, about 2% of the global power supply was traded across borders. According to the analysis, cross-border trade could account for about 16% of global demand with full renewable development and around 30% if only the best sites were developed.

While geopolitical barriers to building transcontinental power pools are acknowledged, the potential benefits include shared advantages for both importers and exporters of renewable energy. Importing nations avoid the cost of developing less desirable projects or investing in expensive battery storage, while exporting nations find a destination for excess electricity, improving the economics of renewable energy development. The research suggests that a global approach, involving more international integration, could be key to a successful green transition.

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