Building a global electricity grid, one transatlantic cable at a time

10 May 2017

Image: Pixel 4 Images/Shutterstock

Some researchers think a massive, electrically connected world is our destiny but to achieve that, there needs to be an awful lot of collaboration.

Communication, put simply, is conveying a meaning from one person or group to another. It can be anything from a wave or smile, to a whisper or yell. It is older than humanity and will outdate us all, too.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s an immovable, unchangeable beast, nor does it mean humans have had a free ride on the concept. Quite the contrary, in fact, with some of our species’ greatest achievements coming from improving our communications infrastructure.

Connected world

Pigeons, semaphore lines and the advent of electricity, telegrams and telephones dragged humans into new, advanced ages.

The dawn of the internet sped this up and then some, but now we’re at a moment of crucial reflection. To satisfy our current electricity needs, is an entire overhaul of the energy industry needed?

A connected grid, spanning the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, could mean an energy surplus in one area can satisfy another, shortages can be mitigated against and, ultimately, the next age of communications can begin.

That’s according to a new project undertaken at the centre for Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) and University College of Cork (UCC), with a bid to ‘connect the continents’ as the broad tagline of the plan.

Standing on the shoulders

As UCC notes, it is now around 150 years since a group of people stood on Ireland’s western seaboard and stared out across the wide Atlantic with a big idea in mind.

Laying cable along the ocean floor, they connected Ireland with the US, and Europe with the new world.

Researchers at the MaREI centre are exploring an equally ambitious idea, one where the electricity networks of Europe and North America are connected through a powerful underwater cable.

This will enable huge volumes of electricity, generated from clean renewable sources such as ocean, wind and wave, to flow in both directions across the Atlantic.

Obviously, that would require some renewable energies – ocean and wave in particular – to prove an actually profitable process but the idea is sound, and the investigation is worthwhile.

Understanding energy

“What we want to do is develop a global electricity model,” said Dr Paul Deane of UCC. “We want to understand what the benefits are for these types of electricity cables – that’s in terms of economics, the replacement of fossil fuels, everything.”

Deane and his team will essentially be looking at what electricity cables (if they existed) between the likes of Cork and New York, Lisbon and Boston, or Nova Scotia and Vigo, would provide.

Will they actually reduce our reliance on fossil fuels? Will they maintain a charge of power from one point to another? Will they be manageable and, most importantly, will they be profitable?

A four-year investigation beginning this summer will see MaREI team up with Energy Exemplar, an Australian company that specialises in mathematical software to understand large-scale electricity systems across the globe.

Dr Paul Deane (left) and Dr James Glynn, leading the Connecting Continents project at UCC MaREI. Image: UCC

From left: UCC’s Dr Paul Deane and Dr James Glynn are leading the Connecting Continents project. Image: Patrick Cross

Land to sea

“Terrestrial cables are very advanced,” said Deane, far more advanced than any underwater alternatives. He said the most impressive is in China, where a 2,200km cable handles 8GW of power over land.

“Actually, there is a longer one in Brazil; it’s spread over 2,400km, but it transmits a little less power,” he said.

The longest underwater cable is between Norway and the Netherlands, reaching roughly 580km, end to end, with a capacity for 700MW.

The distance between Europe and the US? From Nova Scotia, on the north-east coast of the US, to Vigo in Spain, it reaches more than 4,300km. This is one of the shorter distances, too.

The practicalities of laying this type of cable, though, don’t interest Deane. There are others looking into this, he said, notably in some major investigations in China.

For him and his team, it’s all about the electricity.

“We have developed European models in the last few years but globally, it is a bit more challenging – the main challenge being time.”

Four-year study

Deane’s team will be dealing with huge amounts of data, taking four years to run through all the cycles.

Funded by Science Foundation Ireland and Energy Exemplar, Deane hopes the project will put “Irish research front and centre, contributing to a cleaner future” in an industry that is only going to grow in importance.

“When we’re done, the model will be completed and freely available to academic researchers, through open access,” said Deane.

By having the ability to share and distribute electricity between continents, it will allow resources to be used efficiently without the need for storage or waste.

It will also take advantages of time differences, sending redundant night-time electricity in one part of the world to somewhere else, quenching the morning thirst.

And for Deane, it will mean his four-year project, something he calls a “techno-economic study”, will have been worth it.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic