Plan for north-east Asian electricity ‘super grid’ boosted

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Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son’s ambitious plan for a north-east Asian energy “super grid” has been given a boost after winning the backing of the head of South Korea’s state-run energy group.

Cho Hwan-eik, Kepco chief executive, on Thursday hailed the project as going “beyond economics”, saying it had the potential to ease the region’s persistent tensions. “We have carried out a preliminary feasibility study on the project and concluded that it is feasible economically and technically,” he said.

The plan to connect the electricity networks of South Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia and Russia is ostensibly aimed at bolstering the region’s energy security. But it has also been championed in recent months by Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s new president, as a foundation for deeper regional economic and security integration.

A super grid would allow north-east Asian nations to share energy supplies, particularly in the event of a natural disaster, a Kepco spokesperson said.

Jung Heon, vice-president of the Korea Institute of Energy Policy, said the regional power grid plan was “an essential project for stable energy supply in the region. There are some technical problems but we can overcome those barriers if a political agreement is reached between the nations.”

Mr Son, chief executive of Japanese technology group SoftBank, first proposed the plan following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster — but it has not attracted the same level of attention as some of the company’s other eye-catching moves, from last year’s £24bn acquisition of UK chip designer Arm and launch of the $100bn Saudi-backed Vision Fund to its troubled plans to invest up to $10bn in Uber.

However, SoftBank has started adding operations that could feed into a regional grid.

Last month SoftBank launched its new 50 megawatt wind farm in Mongolia’s Gobi desert — “the first step for the SoftBank Group . . . under the Asia Super Grid project”, according to Mr Son.

That followed the April announcement of a partnership for the development and construction of two large solar projects in the Japanese regions of Fukushima and Nagano.

Mr Moon has sought to use the initiative to bring nations together in a region on edge over North Korea’s nuclear provocations.

During a speech in Vladivostok in September, the South Korean president called for Russia’s inclusion in the project “within a greater vision of forming a north-east Asian economic bloc and a multilateral security system”.

However, some analysts have questioned the project’s viability. They say a multilateral deal would take years, pointing to the precedent of much-discussed but ultimately unfulfilled plans to develop an overland gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea via North Korea, and raising concerns that South Korea has yet to develop cables that can carry the necessary 800 kilovolts of direct current thousands of kilometres along the seabed.

“It is not technically impossible and could boost energy security,” said Kang Seung-kyung, an analyst at Korea Investment & Securities. “[But] it will take a long time to reach a political agreement and actually establish the energy network.”

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in Beijing and Max Seddon in Moscow

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