UPDATED 1 Sept: The EI library in London is temporarily closed to the public, as a precautionary measure in light of the ongoing COVID-19 situation. The Knowledge Service will still be answering email queries via email , or via live chats during working hours (09:15-17:00 GMT). Our e-library is always open for members here: eLibrary , for full-text access to over 200 e-books and millions of articles. Thank you for your patience.
New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Power grids require $3.1tn investment worldwide by 2030


Pylons and transmission lines at sunset Photo: Adobe Stock
The total length of all power grids worldwide is expected to expand to 104mn km in 2030, and 140mn km in 2050, according to Rystad Energy

Photo: Adobe Stock

Renewable energy developments continue at break-neck speed, with $644bn to be spent on new capacity in 2024, but outdated and inadequate power grids could prove to be a significant stumbling block to the energy transition, new research from Rystad Energy has found. If the world is to limit global warming to 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels, $3.1tn of grid infrastructure investments are required before 2030.

In that scenario, Rystad Energy predicts that an additional 18mn km of grid network would be needed to keep pace with the electrification underway across cities and counties, including new renewable energy capacity and the rapid adoption of electric vehicles. This would take the total length of all power grids worldwide to 104mn km in 2030, expanding to 140mn km in 2050 – almost the same distance from Earth to the sun. The immediate expansion by 18mn km would necessitate nearly 30mn tonnes of copper, a commodity already in short supply.


Growing global power demand is the main factor driving the need for grid enhancements. This rise is driven by population expansion, industrialisation and urbanisation in developing countries, and efforts to mitigate climate change through electrification. Cybersecurity, geopolitics and the increasing priority for securing reliable national energy supply also contribute to the need. Yet, inefficient regulatory frameworks could significantly delay grid developments and, in turn, the energy transition, Rystad notes.  


Edvard Christoffersen, Senior Analyst, Rystad Energy, comments: ‘Power grids will be both an enabler and an obstacle to the energy transition. Mature grids have enabled the rapid expansion in solar and wind capacity seen in recent years, but many national grids are now near or at the point where further connections cannot be made without upgrading or expanding them. Annual investment levels must increase if the current trend of renewable energy buildout is to continue.’


The total combined length of all transmission and distribution networks globally is around 86mn km, a distance long enough to encircle the planet more than 2,100 times. The transmission grid comprises 6mn km of high-voltage lines (>70 kV). In comparison, the much larger distribution grid consists of around 8mn km of medium-voltage (10–70 kV) lines and a colossal network of low-voltage (<10 kV) lines traversing about 72mn km, reaching households in all corners of the world. The grid length is set to expand to 104mn km by 2030 and 140mn km by 2050. Asia is set to contribute more than half of global additions this decade, with China and India leading the way as the world’s first- and third-largest power consumers, the research shows.


Rystad predicts global grid investments will reach $374bn this year, with China accounting for about 30% of the total. Asia will lead in grid expansion investments, but other regions are trying to catch up to keep pace with renewable capacity additions. The US Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes $65bn for upgrading and expanding national power infrastructure, while the European Commission (EC) launched an Action Plan for Grids in late November 2023, calling for €584bn in investment between 2020 and 2030. The EC and the European Investment Bank (EIB) are also exploring how to streamline financing to support these significant grid investments. In the UK, National Grid launched an action plan to revamp its network for the first time in decades, investing over £16bn in upgrades between 2022 and 2026.


The rapid expansion of the power grid will require vast volumes of raw materials, especially copper and aluminium. Copper is primarily used as the conductor in underground distribution, transmission and subsea cables, while overhead lines use aluminium (although it can be substituted as a conductor in underground lines). Rystad’s research expects that demand for copper and aluminium will surge by almost 40% by the end of the decade, but grids are not the main driver. Grids only account for roughly 14% of copper demand globally, or about 4mn tonnes in 2024.


Lengthening the network is necessary to support intermittent and remote renewable power generation and to connect new industrial, commercial and residential areas, but alternatives to meet growing power demand also exist. Implementation of large-scale battery storage can address intermittency issues associated with renewables and allow for higher average grid loads, reducing the need for new lines. Overhauls and upgrades of the existing grid can increase the capacity per kilometre and digitalisation can free up capacity by solving flexibility issues. At the same time, distributed energy sources such as rooftop solar can reduce the need for new lines. What is clear is that the world’s current grid infrastructure does not meet the demands of the future energy system, Rystad notes.


Tortuous permitting processes are already causing bottlenecks in many countries, including the US and the UK. Adopting large-scale battery storage solutions and grid digitalisation can address some grid intensity issues, but the electrification of society will spark greater attention and efforts to streamline regulatory frameworks and encourage investments so grids can be an enhancer rather than an inhibitor of the energy transition, the study concludes.