The average human body contains some 7 octillion electrons (that’s 27 zeroes) 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 today. Could megaprojects 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, trucks, and 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 400-500 kilovolt system, which is the backbone of national grids.
DC requires conversion at the delivery point to be usable, but it has other advantages: half the losses of 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 direct current (DC), rather than the more familiar alternating current (AC), has proven 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 North Sea Link, 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 ($17.3 billion) Xlinks power project, a plan to produce 10.5 gigawatts of renewable energy in Morocco and feed it through a 3,800-kilometer, 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 percent of the UK’s total electricity needs.
Other ambitious intercontinental links in the works include IceLink, which would connect geothermal and hydro-rich Iceland to Britain with up to 1,200 km of cable, and the 20 gigawatt, 4,200 km Australia-Asia PowerLink 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 EuroAsia and EuroAfrica Interconnectors – are modest in comparison but more practical in the short-term. Part of an envisioned “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 Gulf Cooperation Council Interconnection, which tied the six 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 50 hertz, 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 Saudi-Egypt and Saudi-Jordan connections, long discussed projects that now appear to be underway. 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 EU’s single market, large-scale international electricity trading hasn’t taken off, primarily due to 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 Desertec Industrial Initiative 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 percent 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 to Saudi Arabia’s oil exports, which bring in that amount daily at current prices.
Megaprojects 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.
Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of “The Myth of the Oil Crisis.”