Achieving Net Zero means building 80 million kilometres of new and refurbished power lines within 17 years, equivalent to wrapping the Earth 2,000 times with new electricity grid capacity. All the high voltage lines built in the last century will need to be built again by 2040 to benefit from all the intermittent power produced by the vast number of wind turbines. The ecological costs of all this can only be guessed at. Electricity cables are made of aluminium and copper and strung on giant pylons made of steel and supported by large concrete bases. For their part, wind turbines are a menace to both avian and oceanic wildlife, consume vast quantities of raw materials, have a limited lifespan and are an increasing blight on both inland and offshore landscapes.
If the International Energy Agency (IEA) gets its way, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The roll-out of high voltage lines will be on an unprecedented scale. In a report on global electricity grids issued to coincide with COP28, the IEA states that “an unprecedented level of attention from policymakers and business leaders is needed to ensure grids support clean energy transitions and maintain electricity security”. Major changes in how grids operate and are regulated are said to be essential. Annual investment in grids, which has remained broadly stagnant, needs to double to more than $600 billion a year by 2030.
The Australian science journalist Jo Nova is in no mood to be understanding: “Remember, it’s not their fault that renewables need far more land, more space, more backup and more infrastructure – it’s our fault we didn’t build a world ready for their holy energy.”