India and the United Kingdom collaborating on the ‘Green Grid Initiative – One Sun One World One Grid’ is a statement of geopolitical intent. Over the coming years, success will depend on building political support, securing finance for pilot projects, and overcoming political hurdles.
In recent years multiple globe-spanning electricity grid initiatives have been proposed, with a mind to achieving an interconnected, renewables-based future. Best known, is the proposal to build solar plants in the Sahara Desert, and transport electricity to power hungry Europe. In Australia, support is growing for solar parks to be built in the country’s Northern interior, and cables to be laid to transport cheap electricity to South-East Asia. [i] In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed ‘Global Energy Interconnection’, promising to ‘knit together’ national grids into a global network. [ii] These initiatives receive attention because they promise solutions to the cost, volume, and intermittency challenges of renewables transition.
India and the UK have now announced at the Glasgow COP26 Climate Talks, that they are to lead another mega initiative: the ‘Green Grids Initiative – One Sun One World One Grid’ Initiative. [iii] The headline proposal is to build transmission infrastructure interconnecting India with South Asia and the Middle East, and later Africa, South-East Asia and beyond, connecting 140 countries. [iv] It envisions the mass transport of solar-based electricity from where the sun is shining at any time, to meet peak evening and dawn demand East and West. It is an evolution of the ‘One Sun One World One Grid’ (OSOWOG) Scheme, promoted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The announcement of the Initiative is a significant geopolitical statement of intent by India and Britain. It signals both Governments’ desire to deepen collaboration with countries around the world on renewables-based electricity infrastructure, and to shape the world’s evolving energy landscape.
Governments everywhere are looking at how to engineer the renewables transition. For the Indian and British Governments, there are opportunities and imperatives in promoting projects, in influencing what technology and financing countries use, and market and governance arrangements. These are economic, the potential for business, and geopolitical and security related, the desire to build diplomatic influence and to offer an infrastructure alternative to China. While the GGI-OSOWOG’s clunky name may not last, Indian and British commitment to making themselves central players will.
We should not expect this Initiative to deliver a globally interconnected grid on the scale imagined anytime soon. Interconnection projects are hard on numerous fronts. It is possible to transport electricity long distances with new high-voltage transmission line technology. But cables are expensive, and only a few projects are likely to be economical.
More difficult are the political hurdles. Multilateral institutions, rules, and market arrangements are needed. Europe was able to create the institutions to interconnect national grids, aided by the advantage of countries already being bound together through the European Union. However, ongoing attempts by China for interconnection with South-East Asia have been hampered for years because South-East Asian states are reluctant to accept Chinese-set rules. In South-Asia, India seeking to keep control of rules has limited efforts to increase the trading of electricity between India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. [v]
Building transmission infrastructure between regions also often meets local political opposition. China’s experience best demonstrates this. It built ultra-high voltage transmission lines, to transport hydro-based electricity from its interior to its Eastern population centres. However, Eastern regions have resisted importing electricity because they already have mainly coal-based generation, which sustains local jobs and a tax base.
Finally, mega schemes for renewables have an extraction mentality, imagining large unused and blank spaces, where solar parks can be built. Such ‘empty’ or ‘wasteland’ rarely exists. Take Northern Australia, the locations where solar parks would be built are mostly Indigenous land areas. Mega schemes are typically blind to the existing politics, economies, and ecologies of places where vast infrastructures are proposed.
While a literal global green grid is unlikely, there is an opportunity for India and Britain to build political momentum amongst countries for interconnection projects – and to work through financing and political challenges. We should judge the success of this Initiative on its successes here.
In the coming years, more regional inter-connection will help countries transition to renewables, and to overcome intermittency problems. Over recent months, the United Kingdom has become acutely aware of its growing dependence on importing electricity from continental Europe when the wind is not blowing. Electricity from hydro-power plants in Nepal and Bhutan can cheaply power homes in India. Renewable energy generated in the Middle East during the day could help power peak Indian evening demand.
The GGI–OSOWOG Initiative can set the ball rolling. Standing and financing committees can establish common political ground. The pursuit of pilot initiative will also be important. Early possibilities being discussion for pilot projects include between India and Omen and Myanmar and Lao. Scoping work, working out financing, and designing institution and markets for pilot projects will take years.
India and the UK will also want to leverage the Initiative to work with countries around the world more generally on grid development and modernisation. China’s achievement with its Global Energy Interconnection plan is instructive. China leveraged the initiative to set up the Global Energy Interconnection Cooperation and Development Organization, with a remit to work with countries on low-carbon development. This opened doors to Chinese companies in a number of countries not only on interconnection, but more broadly on grid development.
Indian companies are already working through much of Africa and South Asia on grid development, with numerous projects funded by Indian concessional financing. The UK cannot compete with other players like China on infrastructure projects, but it is competitive in facilitating private financing, via the City of London, and on institutional and market design. India and the UK are therefore complementary partners.
At Glasgow, the GGI–OSOWOG Initiative’s vision to interconnect 140 countries is the focus. While an actual global green grid remains unlikely anytime soon, India and the UK are making clear their intention to work with countries around the world on infrastructure for the renewables transition. Success will be their ability to build political support, secure finance for pilot projects, and overcome political hurdles.https://newatlas.com/energy/sun-cable-australia-singapore-solar-undersea-powerlink/
[ii] Downie, Edmund. 2019. China’s vision for a global grid. Reconnecting Asia. Available at: https://reconasia.csis.org/global-energy-interconnection/
[iii] COP26. One Sun One World One Grid. Available at: https://ukcop26.org/one-sun-declaration-green-grids-initiative-one-sun-one-world-one-grid/
[iv] Wallen, Joe. 2021. World’s first transnational solar panel network set for launch in autumn 2022. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/climate-and-people/worlds-first-transnational-solar-panel-network-set-launch-autumn/
[v] Pillai, Aditya. 2020. Global solar grid could cause sun burns. Financial Express. Available at: https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/global-solar-grid-could-cause-sun-burns/2002977/?fbclid=IwAR1lysDiS0UKZaynUpIWacQG9026bnbOnlwZSJUzYCoupu8FOGZgROIMZ8Q