The Desertec solar plan

Milan Ilnyckyj with a picked padlock

As reported in The Economist, Munich Re has invited 20 large companies to form a consortium, intended to build concentrating solar power stations in Africa and the Middle East, as well as the high voltage direct current (HVDC) lines required to bring that power to Europe. The stations will use molten salt heat storage, so as to be able to generate power day and night. Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, is motivated by concern about its exposure to climate change. Fully implemented, the scheme would cost $560 billion and provide 15% of Europe’s projected energy demand in 2050. The complete system would cover 17,000 square kilometres of territory.

Desert solar as a renewable energy option has come up here before.

All told, the plan is very promising. It is refreshing to see companies thinking strategically about the long-term harm climate change could do to them, as well as the long-term opportunities associated with renewable energy. A report produced by the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and the Club of Rome determined that the project could produce 240,000 jobs in Germany, as well as €2 trillion worth of electricity by 2050.

Even more importantly, it could demonstrate the feasibility of the desert concentrating solar / HVDC option, which could be extended to the Southern US and elsewhere. As David MacKay explains, this is one of the renewable options where the figures add up, and it could be possible to generate the kind of energy societies demand. Here’s hoping the Desertec plan helps lead the way.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

21 thoughts on “The Desertec solar plan”

  1. Normally I would credit it, but you anonymous bloggers make things complicated.

    Photo point to: the Hella Stella.

  2. Very sexy photo, Stella! And.. gee, I wonder why it took everyone so long to think of harnessing solar power in the desert?

  3. Actually, Auguste Mouchout produced the first concentrating solar steam engine back in 1866.

    What makes the Desertec plan notable is the intended scale, as well as the apparent strength of industry support. It could actually happen, and help prompt similar developments elsewhere.

  4. “One must not believe, despite the silence of modern writings, that the idea of using solar heat for mechanical operations is recent. On the contrary, one must recognize that this idea is very ancient and its slow development across the centuries it has given birth to various curious devices.”

    — Augustin Bernard Mouchot, at the Universal Exposition, Paris, France (1878).

    “Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion… Coal will undoubtedly be used up. What will industry do then?”

    — Augustin Bernard Mouchot, after demonstrating an early industrial application of solar thermal energy (1880).

  5. When my father worked for UNIDO in the Sudan in the late 1970’s, he was in charge of a solar power program of a massive scale. The program ran into problems because of the frequent sand storms in that region which made the solar cells more or less inoperable. Perhaps the technology has improved and the results will be more positive.

  6. Wednesday, July 22, 2009
    Two exciting things (DII and DWFTTW)

    The first thing I got excited about recently is the news announcement that roughly 20 big German companies are talking about investing €400 billion in the Desertec Industrial Initiative. What is thrilling about this announcement is that it involves a sum of money that is in the right ballpark for a genuine plan to get off fossil fuels. So often, government announcements have involved 1 million here, 10 million there, and (rarely) 100 million. I reckon the cost of putting together a new energy system for the UK must be roughly 400 billion pounds, or 10 billion pounds per year from today to 2050. This is much more than millions; but it is still perfectly affordable, given that we already spend 80+ billion per year on energy and 80+ billion per year on insurance. I’d love to see details of what the German companies think they could buy for their 400 billion euro.

  7. The program ran into problems because of the frequent sand storms in that region which made the solar cells more or less inoperable.

    Concentrating solar plants should probably be more robust against things like sandstorms.

    First, the reflective panels are a lot cheaper than solar panels, as well as less delicate.

    Also, while the output from a photovoltaic cell drops to zero if any part of it is in shadow, any proportion of the total reflective area of a mirror that is sunlit will direct light at the point where it is being concentrated.

    Of course, sand could cause problems with the machinery that keeps the mirrors pointing in the right direction.

  8. “Now, that’s the total electric energy consumed during the year, and you can turn that into the rate of energy consumption (measured in Watts, just like the world was one big light bulb) by dividing kilowatt hours by the number of hours in a year, and multiplying by 1000 to convert kilowatts into watts. The answer is two trillion Watts, in round numbers. How much area of solar cells do you need to generate this? On average, about 200 Watts falls on each square meter of Earth’s surface, but you might preferentially put your cells in sunnier, clearer places, so let’s call it 250 Watts per square meter. With a 15% efficiency, which is middling for present technology the area you need is

    2 trillion Watts/(.15 X 250. Watts per square meter)

    or 53,333 square kilometers. That’s a square 231 kilometers on a side, or about the size of a single cell of a typical general circulation model grid box.”

  9. Europe To Import Sahara Solar Power Within 5 Years

    “If just 1% of the Sahara Desert were covered in concentrating solar panels it would create enough energy to power the entire world. That’s a powerful number, and the European Union has decided to jump on its proximity to the Sahara in order to reap some benefits from the untapped solar energy beaming down on Northern Africa. Yesterday, European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger announced that Europe will start importing solar energy from the Sahara within the next five years. It is estimated that the initiative will cost €400 billion ($495 billion). It’s part of an EU goal to derive 20% of its power from renewable sources by 2020. From the article: ‘The EU is backing the construction of new electricity cables, known as inter-connectors, under the Mediterranean Sea to carry this renewable energy from North Africa to Europe. Some environmental groups have warned these cables could be used instead to import non-renewable electricity from coal- and gas-fired power stations in north Africa.’ To this the energy minister replied, essentially, ‘Good question, we’ll get back to you on that.'”

  10. There is no lack of ideas for ways in which the two shores of the sea could collaborate in producing and distributing green energy. The most ambitious is Desertec, an initiative backed by German firms that would see vast solar power plants built in north Africa at a cost of up to €400 billion ($552 billion), with much of the electricity sent to Europe.

    But the potential backers of such projects are in shock after an abrupt change of tack by the Spanish government, which has slashed subsidies for windmills and solar panels. Italy is also scaling back incentives for solar energy, looking, like Spain, to trim its budget deficit. Nor is there any guarantee that north African countries with abundant fossil-fuel stocks will welcome big solar installations.

  11. A Japanese/Algerian effort called The Sahara Solar Breeder Project employs a simple concept revolving around the pure silica in the sand of the Sahara Desert. The silica can be used to build vast solar arrays which will then provide the power and means to build more solar arrays in a classic breeder model. They would then use DC powerlines utilizing high temperature superconductors. The lead of the project points out that silica is the second most abundant resource in the Earth’s crust. The project’s lofty goals to harness the Sahara’s energy has a few requirements — including 100 million yen annually — but also the worldwide cooperation of many nations and the training of the scientists and engineers to create and man these desert plants. The once deadly wasteland of the Sahara now looks like a land rich in an important resource: sunlight.”

  12. Importing energy

    SIR – Charlemagne (September 7th) did not mention a huge additional benefit of a pan-European energy grid: access to the vast reserves of renewable energy in the deserts of north Africa.

    We should produce as much renewable energy locally and nationally as we can. But Saharan sun and wind could provide the rest of our energy. With long-distance, direct-current interconnectors bringing in as much extra power as we need, Europe can run its cities and factories on fuel that is free, never runs out, and protects our climate.

    The Climate Parliament works with legislators in Morocco and Tunisia, who are keen to export renewable energy. Europe needs to get serious about buying it. We already have a vast supergrid of gas pipelines covering the region. We need to do the same for clean electricity.

    Nicholas Dunlop
    The Climate Parliament

  13. FORTY-FIVE minutes west of Las Vegas, dejected sinners may encounter a sight to lift their sunken hearts: a sea of 347,000 mirrors, reflecting the rays of the desert sun on to boilers mounted on three 460-foot towers. The Ivanpah solar-thermal plant, which opened in mid-February, is the largest of its kind in the world. Fully ramped up, it will deliver around 377 megawatts (MW) of power to 140,000 homes in southern California. Its backers compare it to the nearby Hoover Dam; an astronaut claims to have spotted it from the international space station. It is a striking sight, even if the heat from its heliostats has roasted dozens of unfortunate birds alive.

  14. In Asia, something similar may emerge on a grander scale. State Grid plans to have 23 point-to-point UHVDC links operating by 2030. But it wants to go bigger. In March 2016 it signed a memorandum of understanding with a Russian firm, Rosseti, a Japanese one, SoftBank, and a Korean one, KEPCO, agreeing to the long-term development of an Asian supergrid designed to move electricity from windswept Siberia to the megalopolis of Seoul.

    This project is reminiscent of a failed European one, Desertec, that had similar goals. But Desertec started from the top down, with the grand vision of exporting the Sahara’s near-limitless solar-power supply to Europe. Today’s ideas for Asian and European supergrids are driven by the real needs of grid operators.

    Such projects—which are transnational as well as transcontinental—carry risks beyond the merely technological. To outsource a significant proportion of your electricity generation to a neighbour is to invest huge trust in that neighbour’s political stability and good faith. The lack of such trust was, indeed, one reason Desertec failed. But if trust can be established, the benefits would be great. Earth’s wind-blasted and sun-scorched deserts can, if suitably wired up, provide humanity with a lot of clean, cheap power. The technology to do so is there. Whether the political will exists is the question.

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