China and the smart grid: Missing pieces?

By Ian H. Rowlands

China is active in smart grids.  A variety of reports, comparing cross-national levels of investment, highlight this.  The country continues to pursue – successfully – its three-stage smart grid plan:

  • Stage I:  Planning and Pilot Stage (2009-2010)
  • Stage II: Construction Stage (2011-2015)
  • Stage III: Improvement Stage (2016-2020)

What aggregate numbers and high-level strategies do not reveal, however, is ‘where’ China’s particular smart grid priorities are located.  Different countries direct resources to different parts of the electricity system when they trumpet their own smart grid plans. A recent report by the Global Smart Grid Federation, for instance, compares approaches taken across eight different jurisdictions (though not China’s).  What is valuable, therefore, is a deeper consideration of China’s activities and ambitions, to illuminate where the country’s present ‘smart grid emphasis’ is, and where the future ‘smart grid focus’ will necessarily need to be.

China’s vision of the smart grid

In China, the ‘smart grid’ – or the ‘strong and smart grid,’ as it is usually called in official documents – is presently dominated by two issues:  transmission and storage.

Most of China’s coal, hydro, wind and solar resources are located at least 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) away from the country’s populous eastern and southern regions.  The construction of higher-voltage transmission lines has therefore been given top priority, with, for instance, $80 billion invested to construct 40,000 kilometres of ultra-high voltage lines during Stage II of the country’s national smart grid plan.  Indeed, examine any of a variety of images of smart grid in China and the focus is clear:  long-distance transmission is the star while supply points and demand centers play secondary roles. This contrasts with many North American images of smart grid, which focus upon the end-user – the proverbial ‘last mile of the electricity system’ where ‘smartness’ has traditionally been lacking.

Large-scale storage is another high priority in China. The country’s energy efficiency ambitions, coupled with its desires to penetrate international markets, are catalysing significant activity in solar energy and wind energy development.  The need to advance grid stability in light of this increased use of inherently variable renewable resources is thus encouraging China to be amongst the world leaders in smart grid storage.

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