A new network will save the world

 By Eniday Staff

Let’s take the aqueduct as a practical example: water is collected from a source, is then channeled and added to some more, coming from different sampling points until its flow rate is enough for the eventual users…


Water flows in one direction and cannot be reversed: the Roman one for instance, comes all together from Peschiera River, the Lake of Bracciano or the Farfa springs, where it spills out of fountains in the street and kitchen and bathroom taps, and even serves some factories, which might get their water more cheaply from a river or the sea. The arrow of water flies only in one direction. No one can put it back into the system. For many decades, electrical grids for transmission and distribution worked much like water systems. Electricity was generated at generating plants, stepped up to a high voltage, put onto the grid and gradually brought down to lower voltages before reaching points of use. There was a hierarchy, as in a tree, from trunk to branch to leaf. But things have changed. For example, when the electricity generated at a power station – let us say a hydroelectric one, to bring it back to water – goes onto the grid, it joins electricity from many hundreds of other stations, great and small, as well as from countless points of production. The latter are mostly houses with solar panels, which put the surplus they do not consume back onto the grid. The trunk, branch and leaf analogy no longer applies. To borrow from the famous French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, what we have now is a “rhizome”, literally the stem that helps plants reproduce in bad conditions but metaphorically a system that is horizontal rather than vertical, in which points of connection get bigger and bigger, with no fixed direction, until they reach the great central point, where everything comes into action. Today, anyone can have a solar panel on his roof and make a contribution, however small, to the great interconnected flow of electricity. This change was essentially brought about by so-called distributed generation, the sum of photovoltaic installations, biomass generators, thousands of little run-of-the-river hydroelectric plants and tens of thousands of wind turbines of all sizes, spread all over Italy.

Anyone who owns a photovoltaic system on their home roof contributes to the large interconnected flow of electricity (Community HousingWorks)

The new look of the electrical network

The new design for electric grids therefore deals with one of the problems of distributing renewable sources. It makes sense to ask whether further advances in connection systems could overcome another great difficulty: the fact that solar and wind power are non programmable. Imagine you’re in Madrid, it’s nine in the evening on a muggy, late-July day, and up on the coast in Asturias there’s not enough wind to ruffle a feather. Meanwhile, the sun has left the solar panels high and dry. Up in the North Sea, however, the turbines are spinning at a good pace, and in Finland the panels have still got two hours of daylight to send to the grid. The question is, could we send electricity from Finland to Spain, Egypt to Russia or even Canada to Mexico, and vice versa? If we came up with a global electric grid, would it solve most of the problems of generating renewables? Based on the available literature, the answer is a cautious “yes.” The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development talks about a global grid, and China has made a priority of developing such networks in its “new Silk Road” project. But can it really be done? On the solar front, the margin of compensation between geographic areas is limited to a few hours; in Helsinki, the sun goes down at 10.50 in late June, in Tunis at 7.40, and that’s just staying in the same hemisphere. Connections of extraordinary length would be needed, and the longer an electrical line, the greater the conductor’s electrical resistance, and with it, losses. Wind is another matter. A study at the University of Liège has shown that even when there’s no wind on the coasts of north-west Europe, most importantly France, Britain and Ireland, healthy gusts are battering the south coast of Greenland and stirring up the clouds over Iceland. An underwater cable from those places to mainland Europe could balance the system. In summer, winds are more intense in North Africa, at the same time they tend to clock off in the European half of the Mediterranean. Electrical connection on a vast scale, without losses from conductor resistance, would also balance out load curves based on times. Excess renewable energy, produced at a low cost at night hours in Europe, could be used in Central Asia, which is six or seven hours ahead of us.

A more sustainable and connected world

From a technical point of view, there’s no obstacle to creating a far more widespread network than the one we have. A lot of countries are moving in that direction already. China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are already studying the feasibility of a connection between them. Research is also going into connecting Australia, which has a massive potential for solar power, with the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. To take some more concrete examples closer to home, the new line between France and England will be active by 2020, and followed by ones between Brittany and Ireland, and Scotland and Iceland. Connections between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, and Portugal and Morocco, are also in the pipeline. This is an opportunity to be explored and exploited as far as possible, albeit in the knowledge that there will never be a solution to all the problems. We will have to go on for decades using all the energy sources at our disposal, but most of all those with a low environmental impact.

READ MORE: Achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal n.7 by Andrew Burger

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Eniday Staff