North Korea holds key to East Asian "super-grid"

Posted on 15 October 2013

North Korea remains the biggest issue of uncertainty in shaping a vision for a “super-grid” to integrate power generation and distribution in Northeast Asia, industry leaders said on 15 October.

The innovative proposal, still very much in the drawing board stages, would connect the electricity grids of China, Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and potentially North Korea into a vast electric power system. Russia, China, and Mongolia would profit by generating electricity inexpensively using fossil fuels and low-carbon renewable resources, while South Korea and Japan would potentially enjoy a secure energy supply despite their lack of natural resources.

“The biggest question is North Korea,” said Stepan Karapetian, Senior Director of Asian Markets for Russian hydroelectric corporation EN+. Karapetian argued that relaying inexpensive hydroelectric power to South Korea would be far more advantageous to that country than the costly coal imports that are sent via Russia’s limited seaports. However, he noted that North Korea cannot be neglected in conceiving the logistics of power delivery. “We can’t transmit power through wifi, so they [North Korea] should be in this mix,” he said.

Urban Rusnák, Secretary General of the Energy Charter organization, described integration of North Korea to the super-grid plan as “highly desirable.” However, he said that integration would have to start from the very beginning of the grid planning process. “Once the direction is started, which might circumvent North Korea, via, say, undersea cables … it will be very difficult to build a second round, because there will be questions of capacity,” he said.

Both Rusnak and Karapetian said including North Korea in the proposed super-grid would likely help to ease geopolitical tensions in the Northeast Asia region, a view echoed by Ping-liang Peter Zeng, Senior Fellow of China Electric Power Research Institute. “Having a super-grid will provide a concrete example for building a more peaceful Northeast Asia,” Zeng said. He said North Korea was unlikely to join the project in the short-term due to political concerns, but would seek inclusion in the long-term because it faces the same lack of natural resources for energy generation as South Korea and Japan.

Andrew Ott, Executive Vice President for US mega-grid operator PJM Interconnection, did not speak directly to the North Korea issue, nor did Jang Gilsoo, a Special Advisor to South Korea’s state-owned electric company KEPCO. However, in responses not directly related to the North Korea’s discussion, both raised points which may also prove to be complicating factors in integrating the North Korea into the super-grid project.

Jang pointed out that relying too much on outside countries for the generation and delivery of power could erode the energy security of those countries that were on the receiving end, and stressed the need for a clear agreement on operational protocol. Ott pointed out that participants in the grid would need clear and reliable trading standards. “The very building blocks of a market is that you need a set of contracts,” he said.


This news story is based on the session Regional Crossroads, “Far Eastern super-grid” at 2013 World Energy Congress.