Desert current to power Europe

One of the most ambigious renewable energy projects has had a sound start in Munich this week: Destertec. Within the next three years there are to be concrete plans for  solar thermal plants in North Africa, the initiators, twelve major companies, said. Whilst there is still technical research to be done, the main objective now is the financing of the giant project that is to deliver up to 15% of European electricity demand within  about 30 years, as well as to cover local demand. The investment will be around 400 bn. Euro until 2050.test2

The concept is an initiative of TREC (Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation was founded in September 2003 by an initiative of The Club of Rome, the Jordanian National Energy Research  Centre NERC, and the Hamburg Climate Protection Foundation HKF), who developed the Desertec Concept which aims to produce clean energy from wind and solar power in and for the EU-MENA region (Middle East/ North Africa) and to supply the European grid.

The idea is simple: a few hours of high radiation in the desert translates to the yearly energy demand of the world. But then… it isn’t that simple.

DESERTEC Map - Source: Wiki Commons, TREC
DESERTEC Map - Source: Wiki Commons, TREC

While there is widespread political support (SPD, German Green Party, Greenpeace,..) and willing investors, the realities are still difficult.

The German Institute of Thermodynamics has published studies on future European electricity demand, renewable energy potential in the desert areas, and the transmission grid.

It’s been concluded that the simpler technology of solar thermal energy is to be installed, which unlike photovoltaic doesn’t convert sunlight directly into electricity. The thermal high temperature collectors use concentrated solar power (mirrors, lenses) to heat the liquid-medium in order to produce steam. The steam then drives a standard turbine that operates with an efficiency of around 40%. This method is cheaper than electricity production through silicium cells, less complicated and usually takes up less space. Similar systems are already in use in Spain (Andasol) and the U.S.

Another advantage of CPS (Concentrated solar power) is the possibility of energy storage through heat, which is much easier to achieve through insulated buffer tanks than storing electricity. That would make electricity production at night possible. Hot salt tanks have been found to be very efficient and cheap, and convenient as the sea is nearby. An additional benefit could be the desalination of sea water.

A problem could be the inevitable transmission losses on the long way to the European grid. This HVDC (high voltage direct current) connection will apparently have transmission losses of around 15%. The cabling will gulp a large chunk of investment.

Of course, sunshine is free, and maintenance is lower compared to other power plants. Yet the investment is gigantic.

One concern is the political instability of the countries involved. Europe would be vulnerable to foreign government disturbing the grid… something that isn’t unique, and a similar threat comes also from the Russian side concerning gas, and even Nabucco will go through rather unstable countries. Algeria and Libya are already reliable  partners for gas and oil now.

A key issue will therefore be the correlation between African and European countries. African countries have to be actively involved, and own the project rather than having it imposed. Also it ought to create quality jobs in the area. Then it could, in fact, be beneficial on the way to a more peaceful and prosperous future in the regions.

Some are concerned that if  capacities are now concentrating on the Desertec project, there will be less investment for European Renewable Energy Projects. But for the 2020 EU- targets  to be met, there are new alternative power stations already in building or planning in Europe. The North African Solar Station is anticipated for full capacity  around 2050.

It’s very much expected to be built, and hopefully it won’t be another project that will just make energy suppliers richer. German calculations of the Aerospace Centre reckon prices could go down from 0.09-0,22 to 0,04-0,05 Euro/kWh. If those cheaper prices will be given to the final consumer, is another story.

In general it has to be said to all efforts to reduce GHG-emissions are worth exploring, and major projects like this could help find a solution for the pressing energy situation.

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