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Primetime Debate: Will an Ultra-High Voltage Transmission Supergrid Solve China's Air Pollution Crisis?

Michael Davidson's picture
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Michael is a Ph.D. candidate in engineering systems at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prior to MIT, he was the US-China Climate Policy...

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  • Apr 23, 2014

China Pollution Crisis and Solutions

CCTV-2, the Chinese state-run “finance” channel (that’s only sometimes focused on finance), aired an interesting hour-long debate recently on the future of electricity transmission in China.  It’s hard to imagine primetime coverage of electricity transmission policy here in the U.S., and the stark contrast with Chinese television’s serious treatment of these issues demonstrates how public concerns over air pollution and renewable energy are being injected into a nearly decade-old discussion on the relationship between the grid and the state. (More background here in a commentary I authored on the institutional bottlenecks to addressing renewable integration through transmission [pdf]).

Notable organizations in attendance included Heilongjiang Grid (one of the hot spots of wind curtailment), several State Grid reps, renewable energy companies (Mingyang, Yingli, Hareon), and a video message from big AC detractor Meng Dingzhong.

Most stakeholders agree that long-distance and higher capacity transmission is necessary for sustained electricity growth. China’s energy resources are widely geographically distributed, often far from load centers. Concerns over air pollution, railway congestion from coal shipments, and providing adequate supply to support electricity demand growth of over 10% annually shift central planners’ gaze to the less developed central, north and western regions as growing electricity production centers.

As early as 2004, State Grid advocated a large, interconnected ultra-high voltage (UHV) 1000 kV AC grid that would criss-cross the country to connect centers of electricity production to demand centers in the east. There was opposition to this vision, however, as some engineers claimed that UHV-AC was too expensive (possibly more expensive than shipping coal by rail to power plants closer to eastern cities) and still technically unproven. (Here’s a longer Chinese piece on this debate.)

A nation-spanning UHV-AC grid also raises the risk of a large-scale blackout. While DC interconnects are asynchronous, AC systems must be fully synchronized, and the wider the area covered by the interconnected AC grid, the higher the risk for cascading failures (to illustrate this point, the studio even turned off the lights for a few minutes as panelists talked about what an electricity outage feels like). Distributed generation was raised as a potential option to keep the lights on, but it still took a back seat to the broader push to build a large-scale, interconnected and centralized power system for China.

CCTV2 Studio UHV CandleEducational power outage in the CCTV-2 studio

Unrelated to technology, another latent concern was the natural concentration of operation that comes from a synchronous grid. Currently, six regional grids and the provinces below them have considerable autonomy in dispatch and planning, which creates more opportunities for local influence on grid operation (though, under this system transmission projects may be underutilized). While a synchronized UHV-AC grid could lead to more centralized control of the national power system, an asynchronous UHV-DC grid need not disturb the current setup significantly and is seen as a hedge against greater monopolization.

Like most other energy programs in China these days, the motivation behind plans for a long-distance UHV grid (whether AC or DC) is framed as the overriding public concern over intense air pollution in China’s large eastern cities. UHV transmission is promoted as a key lever to address this, by (1) allowing larger amounts of renewable energy to get on the grid and (2) slow down or reverse coal plant builds in eastern cities. The CCTV program ran a long opening sequence (with a background score more reminiscent of Jerry Bruckheimer than 60 minutes) profiling the pressing challenge of curtailed wind, and even the possibility for curtailed solar, which is partially related to transmission bottlenecks.

Integrating renewables through transmission effectively requires some changes in grid operation, to address the dispatch issues above, but also more importantly to ensure that the lines are not being built primarily to transmit coal-fired electricity from a growing number of “mine-mouth” plants.

More familiar to a Western audience might be delays in the approval of new transmission lines and the vexing issue of transmission siting. One complaint targeted China’s central policy planner, the NDRC, for failing to approve all of State Grid’s plans. On the other side, a rep from the major transmission component manufacturer Nanrui pointed to rising land costs and right-of-way as key roadblocks on the UHV “super-highway.” NIMBYism, as anywhere, leads to delays in China – even as panelists talked about the “greater social good” of these large projects.

Today, China’s power system is moving toward greater consolidation (horizontal and vertical) and centralization. And these goals are increasingly being reformulated in terms of addressing concerns over air pollution. Most recently, last year’s air pollution plan called for special “air pollution control transmission corridors”: 12 west-east lines that can reduce coal-fired electricity production in the eastern population centers. “Air pollution control” lines in the south primarily connect hydro, while northern lines are frequently referred to as “wind-coal bundling” as they originate in areas of rapid development of both energy sources.

Shifting electricity production to the other end of the line would certainly reduce pollution in major cities, but the percentage of utilization of those lines by clean sources matters for environmental impacts in western cities as well as for CO2 emissions, as was raised in the debate. The growing number of coal caps in Chinese provinces could address this leakage issue, but these are undercut by increases in emissions-intensive coal-to-gas projects and the lack of stringent control measures in some of the large coal provinces like Inner Mongolia. Going forward, the benefits of future transmission plans in China will likely stay in the spotlight as a means of addressing pollution, but as usual with China’s energy policies the devil is in the details.

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Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on May 6, 2014

There was no mention of nuclear in the debate? With nuclear there will be no need for such a large grid extension, they can build the plants a few tens of kilometers of where the electricity is needed. And they can make the coal simply disappear instead of moving it around.

Given that the nuclear plans of China seem more and more ambitious recently, this would have been very relevant.

Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on Oct 10, 2014


Exactly right, it’s relevant.  It looks as if the Chinese are expanding on all fronts to see what does or doesn’t work. Several big experiments at once.   If Schalk Cloete is right, they will eventually settle on CCS (if feasible) and nuclear, because that is the most sane approach.  I don’t like CCS much, but as Schalk points out it is only practical way out.  Let’s hope it works, and they can throw in as much nuclear as will fit.  

Whatever else we may think of China’s leaders (authoritarian, human-rights-crushing despots), we know they are sane.  Unlike American political leaders, who are not allowed to act sanely (even if they are personally sane) because they are caught between Big Money on one side and know-nothing anti-nuclear zealots on the other. So they have to keep spouting renewable energy dogma whenever they’re before a left-leaning crowd.  (This is not to castigate all on the political left–I’m a liberal myself–but it is to point out that liberals are no exception to a herd mentality.) 


Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on Oct 15, 2014

Liking CCS or not isn’t really the matter, the trouble is that if the capture part is not currently really workable at large scale, the storage part for itself simply has no hope of ever working. Where do we ever store such a massive amount of **gas** ?
There’s simply no physical way in which this will ever work. As soon as you calculate the number right for the scale this part, it’s not a matter a improving the technology, it’s nothing more than a pie in the sky when you realize how disconnected from what would be needed what’s really feasible is !

Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on Oct 15, 2014

The only remotely reasonable, decently efficient CCS technology that exists is called biomass.Biomass knows how to remove CO2 from the air at the concentration it currently has, using an abundant renewable energy source, converting it to a very compact form. This doesn’t solve everything, but it does solve a lot of massively annoying problems. It should be the starting point, how do we make it so that the carbon in biomass exits the cycle for long enough, this would be awfully hard but still immensively easier than the pie in the sky attempt that CCS currently is.

Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on Oct 15, 2014


Of course the reason I don’t like CCS is that I too question its feasibility.  I as much as said so. However, recent research shows some promise:

check out

Are you a geologist?  If you want to say sweepingly “there’s simply no way in which this will ever work,” it sounds as if you’re speculating..  Fact is, no one knows if it will really work, but it’s a gamble that has to be made given what Schalk has argued.

Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on Oct 15, 2014

The jury is out on biomass.  It’s burning carbon. It’s a hypothetical in terms of recapture.  There’s no good evidence to show that it really works. There are plenty of reasons to conclude that in current practice it is counterproductive.  If you want some authoritative sources cited, you can look at the section “The Biomass Trap” in my article:

In practical terms, the energy density of biomass is so low there’s no way it can compete with fossil fuels (a very concentrated form of ancient biomass). Moving around enormous masses of biomass to get it to where it can generate electricity at significant scale will burn even more fossil fuel. And smother the landscape around the power plant.  Trainloads and huge piles of coal are bad enough.

Of course by far the greatest energy density with zero CO2 emissions is with–gasp!–nuclear fuel.

We don’t need to be putting more carbon into the air.  We need to be putting LESS.

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