Mongolia looks to power Asia's electricity needs

Big push for super grids across Asia to channel power from country to country

Lights in Tokyo's Ginza district could some day be powered by electricity from Mongolia if plans for super grids to connect power markets across Asia become reality.
Lights in Tokyo's Ginza district could some day be powered by electricity from Mongolia if plans for super grids to connect power markets across Asia become reality. PHOTO; EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

TOKYO • The lights of the high-end boutiques and bars of Tokyo's Ginza neighbourhood may some day be powered by coal burned more than 2,700km in Mongolia, electricity zipping over ultra-high voltage lines across deserts and under seas.

That is the idea behind plans in Asia for so-called super grids, sending power from countries with relatively few people but lots of wind, sunlight and fossil fuels to distant electricity-hungry population centres trying to keep up with demand.

Mongolia, desperate to make more of its abundant resources as it seeks to revive its flailing economy, aims to make that vision a reality through one of the world's most ambitious power projects.

The landlocked nation is considering a US$7 billion (S$10 billion) plan to build coal, wind and solar plants that could send electricity across China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, according to Mr Tamir Batsaikhan, a project director with the Shivee Energy Complex. It is just one concept of how to connect power markets across Asia, where demand is forecast by BMI Research to grow by 3.5 per cent annually through 2026.

While the region's biggest economies, led by China, throw their support behind the projects, the challenge of moving electricity from one country to another - from the differences in voltages and prices to worries about relying on neighbours for power - may mean Mongolia's vision remains just a dream.

A feasibility study on Mongolia's proposed 5,280-megawatt Shivee project, which is backed by state- run investor Erdenes Mongol and the country's energy ministry, is expected by the end of this month, said Mr Tamir.

State Grid Corp of China is carrying out the study and talks with potential buyers would only start after its completion, he said.

State Grid and Japan's SoftBank Group, as well as partners in South Korea and Russia, are a few of the main drivers behind the latest ideas to develop a power grid spanning north-eastern Asia.

State Grid's former chairman, Mr Liu Zhenya, floated an even grander plan almost two years ago for a global network to transmit electricity from continent to continent by 2050 at a cost of US$50 trillion.

"The energy demands of the next three decades will be astronomical," Mr Liu, now chairman of the Beijing-based Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organisation, wrote in a Bloomberg View column in April.

"We will need to power - mainly cleanly - at a scale and for a range of uses we cannot yet fully imagine."

State Grid's chief engineer, Mr Zhang Qiping, said last November that China can export surplus power to India and South-east Asia.

A global network also dovetails with China's One Belt, One Road programme - President Xi Jinping's cornerstone trade initiative to connect Europe, Asia and Africa through infrastructure and investment.

But some countries may worry about becoming too reliant on imported power or technology from China. "Countries may become cautious about taking Chinese technology, worrying this could endanger their own power system security or even national security," said Mr Frank Yu, principal consultant on China and North-east Asia power at Wood Mackenzie.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2017, with the headline Mongolia looks to power Asia's electricity needs. Subscribe