Nikkei reports (“Japan pushes for undersea cables to solve wind power puzzle”, 2022-01-02) that the government is allocating 5 billion yen (about US$43 million) in its supplementary budged for a feasibility study for a 4 GW high voltage direct current (HVDC) link between the power grids of the northern island of Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu, where most of Japan’s population lives. This would be by far the biggest HVDC link ever built in Japan. The Japanese government wants to generate 45 GW of power from offshore wind in 2040, up to about a third of which (14.65 GW) is to be produced in Hokkaido. The development plan lists several promising offshore areas along the southwest coast of Hokkaido.
For this power to be available to consumers outside the northern prefecture, it would need to be exported via a HVDC link. This is the preferred technology for shifting large amounts of power over long distances, especially between AC grids not synchronized with each others or operating on different frequencies. Since 2019 there have been two 300 MW HVDC links between the two islands. Their combined capacity is to be doubled to 1.2 GW by 2028.
Japan has relatively little capacity for transferring power between its regional grids. This is because its grids used to be operated by regional monopolies that had little incentive to ever import or export power. This lack of interconnect capacity became a major problem following the power shortage after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami when less affected areas could not help out the most affected region. There is a conflict of interest between the local utility companies and the country as a whole. Tepco owns a lot of nuclear power stations, expensive infrastructure with huge sunk costs. It would rather generate power from these plants than pay another supplier from outside its area for renewable energy. However, many of these power stations have yet to be restarted since their shutdown following the Fukushima meltdowns. By restricting how much power can be imported from other grids, Tepco can put pressure on regulators to allow it to restart more reactors to ensure a stable supply of power. On the other hand, expanding interconnect capacity would ease the pressure. Which side will the Japanese government take?
A related issue is the variable output of renewable power sources. Long distance transmission will make it easier to compensate for local weather patterns by shifting power between different regions, which allows a larger share of renewable energy to become part of the mix without having to resort to either energy storage or peaker plants (e.g. gas turbines to cover peak loads). That again means Tepco loses leverage to maintain coal and other fossil fuel powered generating capacity as insurance against shortfalls of renewable energy.
China, one of Japan’s main economic rivals in the world, has pursued a completely different course. Over the past decade it has aggressively expanded long distance HVDC links to stabilize its grid. Japan operates a single HVDC link of at least 1 GW, a 1.4 GW link between Honshu and Shikoku that started operating in 2000. All other links are only in the several 100 MW range and most of those are not long distance lines but back-to-back local interconnects, for example between the 50 Hz grid of eastern Japan and the 60 Hz grid of western Japan near Nagoya. By contrast, China has built over 20 HVDC links over 1 GW, mostly with a capacity of 3 GW or more. Many of the biggest projects cover distances of 1,000 to 2,000 km. This allows China to supply it coastal megacities with hydroelectric power from its southeastern mountains or from other power sources from its arid central parts. China is the world leader in wind power. Its windiest parts are along its border to Mongolia and on the Tibetan plateau. Large scale HVDC is key to China’s energy policy for the 21st century.
An alternative to shifting power long distance is to use it to locally generate hydrogen from water (“green hydrogen”) and feed it into pipelines or use it to make ammonia. This makes some sense for applications that already use hydrogen, such as the fertilizer industry or for carbon free alternatives to existing technology, such as direct reduction of iron ore for steel making without using coking coal. However, it makes little sense to use green hydrogen for power generation: if you convert electricity to hydrogen which you then use to generate electricity, more than 70 percent of energy is lost in the process while less than 30 percent remains. By contrast, batteries are 90 percent efficient. Therefore, if excess wind or solar power is used to produce hydrogen, that resource should best be used by industries that directly consume hydrogen, until all fossil fuel currently used for such purposes has been replaced.
If Hokkaido had a surplus of hydrogen from wind power, it would make more sense to have it consumed by steel works and fertilizer plants built in the prefecture rather than sending it through a pipeline to Honshu.
Although green hydrogen or ammonia can be used as fuel in thermal power plants in place of coal or LNG, it would be a terribly wasteful use. Because of the huge conversion losses, we would need three times more wind or solar power to end up with the same amount of usable electricity than if we used grid-scale battery storage to absorb any surplus and make it available when needed. This advantage makes grid-scale battery storage a strategic technology.
Most existing Li-ion batteries depend on relatively scarce resources such as cobalt, nickel and lithium. Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries only require lithium and widely available materials, while sodium ion batteries use only readily available raw materials. Japan will need to invest in high capacity long distance HVDC links as well as in battery storage to speed up its transition to a carbon neutral economy.