The past years have shown us over and over again that standardization across the globe is a good thing. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to take your (non-iPhone) smartphone and many other gadgets such as eReaders anywhere and only need to look for a USB port, or charge cable with a micro-USB connector on it to recharge it. It simplifies things for consumers and for producers who can ship to a unified market without having to consider the world’s wide variety of electrical connectors, voltages and frequencies.
That is not to say that unification of the latter isn’t a desirable thing, however. The rapid spread of USB ports as the de-facto charging standard for any gadget shows that consumers are more than willing to embrace it and that manufacturers are willing to provide this. For many larger devices, the low voltage and ampere-rating of USB obviously means that it will not work there. From computers to refrigerators to electric stoves, the clamouring for a world-wide standard for voltages and connectors is obvious and impossible to ignore.
Right now the situation is so that if you have a house in, say, North-America and you decide to move to Europe, Australia or many parts of Asia, you will simply have to discard all of your electric appliances, aside from the few which have universal voltage input. And even then you may need to invest in a lot of clunky adapters because the connectors do not match up with the outlets in your destination country.
There’s also the manufacturing and distribution issue, where the same device may require a different power circuit for each market in addition to each part of the market requiring a different physical power plug because there are so many different ones. Just looking at the current power plug adapter set I have for most countries in the world, I count no fewer than seven different connectors. Adding in the various other common plugs outside of this set, you end up with more than a dozen different connectors. Add in the older types which are still being used in some parts of the UK, Africa and Asia and you end up with a few dozen .
Then we have the massive differences between the power grids in each country. The voltages differ from around 100 volt to around 240 volt AC (VAC). Frequencies can roughly be divided into two bands, of 50 and 60 Hz. Any combination of voltage and frequency within these limits can pretty much be found around the world. The resulting patchwork  of mains voltages is simply astounding. Some countries, such as Japan, are even split into different power grids with different frequencies and/or voltages.
The benefits of having a single, unified connector and outlet type is therefore quite clear. This would be combined with the selection of a unified voltage and frequency. The obvious choice for the voltage is ~240 VAC. The reason for this is simply that a higher voltage means that for the same wattage you need less copper to transport it, making it both cheaper and safer as more amperes is far more risky than more volts. This benefit can already be observed when looking at the German CEE 7/4 (‘Schuko’) connector versus the American NEMA 5-15 (grounded version of 1-15). While the former can carry up to 16 A at 250 VAC (4,000 Watt), the latter bottoms out at 15 A at 125 VAC (1,875), even though the total diameter of their connectors aren’t that dissimilar.
Finally there is also the benefit of a massive boost in efficiency for existing, so-called switching mode power supplies. Most computer systems and laptops use them, and for those which operate on the 90-250 VAC range it is a commonly known fact that they are a few percent more efficient at a higher input voltage. Doing some quick math here, assume an average power consumption of 100 Watt by a PC, which has a power supply which is 80% efficient at 120 VAC and 85% at 240 VAC, that means that the former pulls a total of 120 Watt from the outlet and the latter 115 Watt. That’s a total of 5 Watt saved by going to a higher voltage grid.
As we know, there are about a billion PCs active right now , of which about half are likely to be on a ~115 VAC grid. Multiplying the earlier number by 500 million gets us a total of 2,500,000,000 Watt saved, or 2.5 GWh. World power production was 20,053 TWh in 2009 . Ergo just by switching to a higher voltage computers around the world alone would save something approaching 0.00001% of the world’s power production as it was in 2009, or just over 11% of the total output of the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam in China .
As usual, I doubt that there are any insurmountable technical issues here, but that it’s something which will end up being a largely political issue. Technically and economically it just makes too much sense to ignore the long-term benefits of such a unified world grid.
Future instalments of this blog will further explore the historical, current and future details of the world grid as it was formed, exists today and probably will change in the future. I hope to see you then.