Desert energy

Dennis Nottebaum
8 July 2009

The idea sounds intriguing: place a vast number of solar thermal energy collectors in an area where both solar energy and space are available in abundance – the desert – and supply a major part of the population with emission-free electricity. What sounds like a remote scenario for energy creation in a future world has become an actual project that awaits realization in the nearer future. Desertec, a project initiated by the German Association of the Club of Rome, attempts to build large-scale solar farms in North African deserts and transmit the gathered electricity to Europe. A consortium of major German industrial and financial giants stands behind Desertec. Headed by Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company, the consortium consists of Deutsche Bank, the engineering giant Siemens, the energy companies E.ON and RWE, and several companies specializing in solar technology.

The mechanism behind the technology is quite straightforward and anyone who has ever tried to set a piece of paper on fire by using a looking glass will understand it: Large mirrors reflect and concentrate sunlight on one point which creates intense heat. This is used to turn water into steam that drives turbines. Thus Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) may be turned into electricity, which may then be transmitted via high-voltage direct current cables. Direct current bears the advantage of relatively low transmission losses while relying on more expensive infrastructure than alternating current.

Desertec is designed to cover around 15% of Europe’s electricity consumption, plus parts of the needs of those North African states in which the facilities will be installed. In order to gather such vast amounts of energy an area of 150 by 150 km would have to be covered by mirrors. The technology to realize a project of that size is readily available, the initiators say. Solar thermal energy collectors have been used in California and Nevada for almost two decades while Spain has built four facilities over the last years. The transmission from the desert to all corners of Europe would require the installation of high-voltage direct current cables through the Mediterranean Sea; an expensive endeavor. All in all, the project costs are estimated to reach as much as 400 Billion Euro. But the investment would ultimately pay off, a study of the German Aerospace Centre says. It estimates the costs for the creation of one Kilowatt-hour of electricity by CSP to be lower than the costs of any other form of energy creation in the long run.

Munich Re, the consortium leader, has long pushed for a more sustainable climate policy. The reinsurer has suffered most from major natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis and floods, which have been ascribed to climate change. Its major branch is the reinsurance of insurance companies. Whenever there is a hurricane in Florida, an earthquake in Italy, or a flood in Southeast Asia the reinsurance industry comes into play. Assessing the risks of these catastrophes happening therefore is an integral part of their business. Climate change has resulted in a rise of unforeseen events and the reinsurers find it increasingly hard to assess the risks of unforeseeable disasters; a reason for them to tackle climate change.

However, as intriguing as the idea of Desertec may be some points have so far not been considered by its proponents. Firstly, even though a consortium of major companies has kicked the project off and put it on the agenda it cannot be realized without political will. Although major German politicians and parties have indicated their support for the undertaking, the prospects are much dimmer on the European stage. France is not going to support a project that may undermine one of its primary export goods: atomic energy. And without French support it will be harder to convince other states to join the project. Moreover, the installation of trans-European power lines is a sensitive issue. The establishment of a European energy grid has long been a troublesome project.

Secondly, the plan rests on the assumption that North African countries will readily join the project. Although these countries may themselves benefit, it will be a major issue to garner long-term support in that area of the world. While solar energy is available in abundance, political stability is not. Conflicts such as Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and despotic leaders such as Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya may put the plan in jeopardy. What is more the influence of OPEC states in the region may lead to conflict and a possible division. They will certainly see an alternative energy project as a threat to their dominant position. These states would be the big losers of the project. It would mean a shift of geopolitical power from the Middle East to the Maghreb, a reason for OPEC states to undermine any efforts.

Thirdly, facilities in these areas will be prime targets for terrorist attacks and sabotage. The solar farms would therefore have to be decentrally located and heavily guarded. But who is going to be responsible for the safety? The neglect of these political issues shows that the project is still in its infancy. A further feasibility study, which is planned to be carried out over the next two years, will show whether Desertec is actually feasible.

Fourthly, it is still unclear whether the project would be run as a supranational organization or a private enterprise. Given the process of privatisation in the energy sector of the EU, the European Commission will have a close look at a state-run business. On the other hand private networks will certainly find it harder to garner venture capital for a project of this size and risk level. Currently the consortium also seeks guaranteed feed-in tariffs in order to bring the project to maturity. This would again presume a long-term commitment on part of national governments and the EU.

On the other hand Desertec may be an opportunity for deeper cooperation between Europe and North Africa from which both sides could possibly benefit. Ultimately, much will depend on whether Europe would be the sole beneficiary or whether North Africa would get its fair share. Such a project always runs the risk of being perceived as imposed on North African states as a neo-imperialist gesture.

However, a stronger economic link between both regions would mean a strong incentive for deeper collaboration. It may actually attract further investments alongside the solar farms and converter stations and be an attractive technology for export. The project will thus be more than just a business endeavor. It could possibly also boost political relations and economic development in North Africa. Furthermore, Europe currently relies on natural gas from Russia and oil from the Middle East. Whether these sources are politically more stable is surely debatable. From this perspective, a diversification of energy sources would be a definite plus.

Additionally, solar thermal power is the only means of energy creation that comes at low environmental costs. CO2 emissions result solely from the construction and maintenance of the solar farms themselves, not from the generation of electricity. And while atomic energy always bears an incalculable risk, CPO is basically free of technological risk. Finally, solar energy is free and available in abundance. Thus CPO may be the first large-scale alternative to our use of fossil fuels and atomic power, as long as the political risks are taken into consideration.

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