On Wednesday, the largest electric utility company in the world proposed the largest electricity project in history: A $50 trillion clean energy network that would power the planet. Wildly ambitious? Absolutely. But according to some experts, the plan, put forth by the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC), could actually work…if politics, money and geography don’t get in the way.

Solar troughs in the Negev desert, Israel. (Photo Credit: David Shankbone)

Solar troughs in the Negev desert, Israel. (Photo Credit: David Shankbone)

Why Does China Care About Clean Energy?

China may be the single biggest polluter on the planet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the problem. The nation has been industrializing at breakneck speed over the last few decades, and the Chinese government recognizes that it’s playing havoc with the health of its citizens.

On average, air pollution contributes to the deaths of more than 4,000 people per day in China, or 1.6 million deaths each year. The land, too, has been befouled by toxic waste, with metal sludge contaminating Lake Tai and various pollutants degrading soil throughout the country. Heavy carbon emissions are reducing rainfall, increasing droughts and making the air in Beijing impossible to breathe safely. The country’s declining ecological and public health led Prime Minister Li Keqiang to declare a “war against pollution,” and is a major factor in why China invests more money in wind and solar technologies than any other country.

It’s really no surprise that the state-run SGCC would want to eliminate the need for fossil fuels with one grandiose clean energy network – China, after all, is no stranger to colossal energy projects. State Grid Chairman Liu Zhenya has said that their proposed network could meet 80 percent of global energy consumption and be operational as early as 2050.

Wind turbines on a hill at sunset. (Photo Credit: Peter Banner)

Wind turbines on a hill at sunset. (Photo Credit: Peter Banner)

Wait, Really?

Around the world, energy experts are heavily scrutinizing SGCC’s plan, and the early consensus is that it could actually work.

“Most of its premises are fundamentally correct,” David Sandalow, a former U.S. acting undersecretary of energy, told the Wall Street Journal. Sandalow has spoken with Liu about SGCC’s proposal and attended the project conference on Wednesday. However, the global network would require the participation (and funding) of several countries and continents. “It’s an open question whether national governments will be open to such a revolutionary idea,” he added.

State Grid envisions a system that utilizes giant solar farms around the equator and wind stations in the Arctic. This world grid would be interconnected by “ultrahigh voltage” power lines to distribute electricity around the globe. SGCC has already built seven such long-range lines and is currently building 10 more. As WSJ points out, “State Grid is using and developing long-range transmission technologies, making the project in some respects a buzz-generating marketing campaign for the company.”

Still, the project would undoubtedly impact global carbon emissions, the major factor in human-made global warming. By supplying 80 percent of the planet’s consumers with clean, renewable power, SGCC is offering individual nations the comparatively simple task of phasing out fossil fuels from the remaining 20 percent.

“This is the right thing to do to benefit all the people of the world,” said Mr. Liu at a media briefing on the project.

And while the network may be criticized as an outlandish vanity project from State Grid (the $50 trillion price tag is almost twice the economic output of China and the U.S.), the ambition of the proposal is commendable.

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