Gavin Maguire is the Global Energy Transition Columnist. He was previously Asia Commodities and Energy editor.
LITTLETON, Colorado, April 3 (Reuters) – Solar panels, wind farms and rechargeable batteries tend to hog most of the air time in discussions about the global energy transition, but electrical grids deserve equal prominence as the vital link between clean energy production hubs and consumers.
Indeed, without grids that can boost the distribution of green energy to a maximum while keeping fossil-powered output to a minimum, efforts to reach net zero carbon emissions may falter regardless of how many wind and solar farms are built.
Utilities and power system planners are acutely aware of the vital role that grids will play in the energy transition, and are ramping up spending on grid upgrades and expansions alongside the roll out of green energy production capacity.
However, according to the International Energy Agency, the current global spending pace on grid upgrades is roughly half the estimated $600 billion required annually through 2030 if net-zero emissions targets are to be accomplished.
(Related column: Electric grids need major upgrades to aid global energy transition)
The build out of required grid types is also uneven, with roughly half of current extra-high voltage transmission lines (eHV) – capable of handling bulk power transfers across long distances – concentrated in China, North America and Europe.
However, large expansions in grid capacity are expected in all regions, with the Indian subcontinent set to emerge as the hub with the highest voltage transmission capacity by 2050, according to the DNV Energy Transition Outlook 2022.
The switch from fossil fuel power plants, which are commonly located close to demand centres, to renewable energy production hubs that will be much farther from end users, is a key feature of most energy transmission blueprints.
In turn, transmission lines that can ferry large power loads over long distances with minimal load loss will be key arteries that will enable transition efforts.
Transmission lines that can handle between 375,000 volts and 765,000 volts of power are known as extra-high voltage lines (eHV), and will play a critical role in enabling the distribution of electricity across long distances over the coming decades.
These lines already account for 46.4% of the installed global transmission network in 2023, according to DNV, and will remain the most common line type by 2050 following an expected 260% rise in installed capacity from current levels.
Greater China has the largest current footprint of eHV lines (26% of 2023’s total capacity), followed by Latin America (16%), the Indian subcontinent (14.6%) and Europe (12.3%).
Ultra-high voltage (UHV) lines can carry more than 765,000 volts, and installed global capacity of UHV lines will expand by nearly 300% by 2050 to become the second most common line type by mid-century, DNV data shows.
Roughly 66% of current UHV capacity is in Greater China (36%) and the Indian subcontinent (30%), and around 10% is in North America.
The Indian subcontinent, home to some of the world’s most aggressive green energy supply road maps, will take over from Greater China as the region with the largest UHV capacity from around 2030, and will then steadily widen its UHV lead until accounting for nearly half of all UHV capacity by 2050, DNV data shows.
Latin America looks also set to rapidly increase UHV capacity, especially after 2035, to connect the region’s planned solar and wind installations across Brazil, Chile, Peru and Mexico.
While currently overshadowed in terms of capacity development by China, India, Europe and North America, other regions will step up their construction of transmission line capacity after 2030.
The Middle East and North African region will become a major hub for eHV capacity by 2040, while Northeast Eurasia and Sub-Saharan Africa will leave it until nearer 2050 before accelerating their capacity installations.
Southeast Asia and the Pacific areas also look set to construct a majority of their capacity build outs after 2035.
All told, however, total global installed capacity of the highest tiers of transmission lines looks set to swell by between 200% and 300% by 2050 from current levels.
In turn, that extra grid capacity should provide a powerful boost to energy transition efforts in every region, and allow global energy systems to capitalize on growing volumes of renewable energy generation.
<The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.>
Reporting By Gavin Maguire.
Editing by Marguerita Choy
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.