No IP Theft, No Problem: China’s Cutting-Edge Grid Technology

JEFFREY FU chronicles China’s grid technology development in response to doubts about China’s capacity for government-driven domestic innovation.

U.S. President Donald Trump frequently alleges that China engages in state-sponsored intellectual property theft. To strengthen his accusations, he draws on the age-old narrative that China lacks the capacity for domestic innovation due to a combination of ineffective government policy and a culture of “rule-bound rote learners.” However, this narrative fails to account for the numerous technologically advanced industries in which China has progressed without relying on intellectual property theft, despite heavy government involvement. One prominent example would be China’s advancement in energy grid integration.

China faces the developed world’s most daunting energy grid problem due to the vast physical separation between its energy-rich regions (such as Gansu, Xinjiang, and Ningxia) and its energy-hungry regions (such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong). These provinces account for almost half of China’s total energy curtailment, which is defined as wasted energy capacity. Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds that China’s power generators suffer the “worst curtailment rates in the world, with the national average curtailment ratio in 2016 at 17% for wind and 10% for solar,” leading to total curtailment of 56.2 TWh.

To visualize the sheer volume of wasted power, consider that in 2016, total wind power generation was 242.0 TWh and total solar power generation was 67.4 TWh. Fully eliminating energy curtailment is estimated to offer the equivalent of saving 86 million tons of coal, 265 million tons of CO2, 1.5 million tons of SO2, 0.5 million tons of NO2, and 0.1 million tons of PM. In short, there are massive public benefits from investing in transmission capacity and technology that the government is willing to supply but the private sector may not be willing to support.

Accordingly, the Chinese government has invested heavily in in ultra-high-voltage direct current (UHVDC) technology that can minimize power loss over long distances and feasibly integrate long-distance power grids. Currently, the West-East Electricity Transfer Project connects the energy rich provinces of Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan, Chongqing, Hubei, Guizhou, and Guangxi to seven cities and provinces that consume nearly 40% of China’s electricity: Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangdong. The corridor includes one of the world’s longest and most powerful UHVDC lines, the 1,980 km 7,200 MW Xiangjiaba-Shanghai UHVDC link.

From 2013 to 2015, China planned ten additional UHVDC lines with voltages at or above 800 kV and transmission capacities at or above 8,000 MW. As of March 2017, China has built over 18,000 km of UHVDC line offering 94 GW of transmission capacity, with an additional 12,000 km planned for a targeted capacity of 155 GW. For context, China’s total solar capacity is 130 GW and total wind capacity is 164 GW as of 2017. A quick calculation reveals that planned UHVDC capacity would total 53% of existing solar and wind power capacity.

However, studies conducted at the end of 2010 indicated that at 800 kV, projects would only be economically favorable if lines were 2,500 km or shorter, leading to a shift in focus to lines that can deliver 1,100 kV. This put a cap on further UHVDC expansion until 1,100 kV research and development is complete, limiting the potential of UHVDC development going forward and necessitating a technological response. President Trump would likely predict that China’s next step is to steal foreign technology in order to develop further.

Contrary to such predictions, without any intellectual property theft, China has successfully driven 1,100 kV research. As of April 2018, construction has started on the world’s first 3,000 km 1,100 kV UHVDC line, the Changji-Guquan UHVDC link, which can carry 12 GW of power, 20% more power than existing 800 kV lines. This groundbreaking high capacity long distance transmission line, once tested and replicated, could be the key to exporting previously curtailed energy from the northwestern provinces to energy hungry coastal provinces. At the very least, it enables further expansion of UHVDC capacity beyond the previous 800 kV routes to match growth in renewable energy capacity.

Additionally, modern HVDC technological breakthroughs allow offshore wind closer to the energy hungry coastal provinces to be exploited. Previously, only wind farm sites within 10 km of the shore could be exploited, but new underwater HVDC technology is enabling the construction of a 1.1 GW offshore wind farm 90 km from the coast of Jiangsu to be developed. By allowing renewable energy sources closer to consumption destinations to be consumed, average curtailment rates are likely to decrease as the new renewable energy capacity is not subject to long distance transmission constraints.

The State Grid Corporation of China has pushed for approval of a $250 billion upgrade plan to link regional grids via 20 HVDC power corridors by 2020. This plan may be overconfident due to concerns about cascading failures through fully integrated grids, but predictably, China is already investing in technology that could mitigate stability concerns. HVDC Flexible, which is based on voltage sourced converter technology, is expected to “solve dynamic stability, black start of power grids and excessive short-circuit current and other issues in a large-scale power grid”, problems which would have made nationwide integration dangerous. Furthermore, new technology allows “the ability for asynchronous interconnection, allowing for efficient ties between different balancing authorities and even different interconnections.” In short, continued development of UHVDC systems will make it increasingly feasible to implement nationwide grid integration.

In summation, China’s progress in UHVDC technology, which is heavily government-driven, does not depend on intellectual property theft. This Chinese success story should serve as a cautionary tale to avoid stereotyping and underestimating China’s innovative capacity.

Jeffrey Fu can be contacted at hao.fu@yale.edu.

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