Creating an Asian Power Grid
Jun. 16, 2016
Masayoshi Son, a leading Japanese entrepreneur, has come up with a bold plan to create a renewable energy network to connect countries in Asia.
Officials attending the UN climate change conference in Paris last December agreed to expand the use of renewable energy sources. They see that as a way to prevent global warming.
Governments around the world have begun promoting renewables. But that presents challenges.
Solar power obviously can't generate electricity at night. It's not easy to find suitable sites to produce significant amounts of electricity by wind power.
Son wants to create a renewable energy network that will connect countries in Asia. It may sound like a pipe dream -- but he has a solid track record when it comes to turning dreams into reality.
Son is the CEO of leading information technology firm Softbank. He made his name by challenging the former state-controlled carriers that dominated Japan's telecommunication industry. He launched the Apple iPhone in Japan.
In 2014, Softbank began selling a robot that can read human expressions and make conversation.
The company's annual operating profit is now around $10 billion.
His plan is to supply cheaper, environmentally friendly electricity by linking Asia and Japan. But just how realistic and achievable is this plan?
NHK World anchor Aki Shibuya sat down for an interview with Softbank Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son.
Shibuya: We are eager to study about your vision for the Asian super grid. Can you give us the big picture?
Son: In India for example, lots of sunshine. Two extra sunshine of Japan. Lots of land so solar energy suddenly become very attractive in India. In Mongolia, the wind is humongous and in one direction, good wind all the time.
We are providing internet business, mobile business, telecommunications. We are always connecting internationally through the under the sea cable. So if we can connect the communication line, under the sea cable, why not power cable under the sea? Basically the same thing.
Son plans to build a major solar power plant in India to take advantage of the abundant sunshine there.
He also believes the Gobi Desert in Mongolia has great wind power potential. The plan is to generate electricity there equivalent to that produced by 100 nuclear reactors.
Son wants to connect these renewable energy sources across borders using a high-voltage DC power grid. Experts say that will limit the amount of electricity lost every 1,000 kilometers to around 3 percent.
The idea is to use a computer-controlled "smart grid" that can pinpoint demand and supply electricity where it's needed.
Son came up with the concept after the earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011.
Son: There was the Fukushima accident and then Japan had a major crisis on energy. I was so sad because we have been providing the mobile network, and our network system totally was disabled because of the failure in power. So I thought, wow, energy is so important. Without electricity, our mobile network cannot function.
I thought nuclear energy was safe, stable, and cheap, but those 3 beliefs that I thought were true were no longer true so then what is the solution for that? I said well, maybe not in the short run, but in the long run eventually the only renewable energy would satisfy all of those three.
I came up with the vision and idea, everybody called me crazy. I admit I am a little bit crazy. But, you know, something big or something new happens with some kind of craziness, ok?
Although Son jokingly calls Asia Super Grid a crazy idea, the plan is starting to take shape. Officials from China's state-run power-grid company, South Korea's state-run power utility, Mongolia's energy ministry and others met last month in Seoul to talk about the Asia Super-Grid proposal.
"GEI is globally interconnected strong smart grid which uses ultra-high voltage technologies to transmit and allocate green and low carbon energy globally," said Wan Haibin, deputy director general of the Global Energy Interconnection Office at the State Grid Corporation China, at the meeting.
"The energy integration is the only chance for Mongolia to utilize the abundant renewable energy resources," said Ensbish Namjil, a professor at the University of Mongolia.
But the super-grid plan faces many hurdles.
"It seems other Asian countries state run companies and the government is involved in the development of renewable energy. And it's not quite the case in Japan. What is your opinion on this? There is a technology. When there is an economical reason to make sense, sooner or later these people will understand and try to support because it’s a good thing for people," Son said. "Some country has more involvement early on from the government, some other country has more involvement with the major enterprise, some country we are small company still but at least I have passion."
One concern is that energy tie-ups with other countries could lead to security problems. But Son says he's not talking about transmitting energy by the super grid alone. He sees it as just one option.
"So it is safer to have a ring. So it’s not dependent on one side. If this ring becomes like the Internet, World Wide Web, if it’s interconnects between different countries from different routes, all around the world, then, that’s the safest," Son said.
In Japan, major power companies long operated as regional monopolies. That made it difficult to connect power lines between regions. But the situation is starting to change following the long-awaited liberalization of Japan's retail power market in April.
Son wants to take advantage of this opportunity.
Son: The first test connection, I hope will be done in the next 10 years.
Shibuya: OK, so in our lifetime.
Son: In our lifetime, we will at least connect the pilot cables, and fifty years, hundred years’ time from now, it will be all connected globally. And we will have a better earth."
Shibuya: What if Japan doesn't get involved now?
Son: Japan will be left out. Japan will stay most expensive country of electricity cost, and most unstable country in electricity in Asia, which shouldn’t be the case, you know, we shouldn’t choose that course. Because sooner or later, look at Europe, it’s all interconnected. And Chinese also decided they want to interconnect, Koreans next to each other. So they are going to interconnect. If we don’t bring our passion to make this happen, Japan will be left out, which is no good. If you don’t want to be left out, ok? Rather than being a follower, better to be initiative, one of the leader. That’s my view.
The Japanese government hasn't commented on the Asia Super Grid. Major utilities are less than enthusiastic. But Son is confident that renewable energy will foster a green industrial revolution.
And he says that's not all. Son says the Asia Super Grid will make the world more interdependent -- and lessen the risk of conflict over energy.