Clean power from deserts

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ADJOURNMENT DEBATE, 2008-02-28

Here is the transcript from Hansard of the Adjournment Debate on "Concentrated Solar Power" held in the House of Commons in the UK Parliament on 2008-02-28 18:00 to 18:22. In the original transcript, scroll down to the heading "Concentrated solar power".

There is also a video recording of the speech (ASF file, Windows Media, 44.4 MB).

Concentrated solar power

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Michael Foster.]

6 pm

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): I feel privileged to be given the opportunity to raise this extremely important issue tonight. Concentrated solar power is a concept of literally dazzling simplicity. It is an idea so simple, and with such extraordinary promise as a means of power generation, that it seems astonishing that in Europe we are only just waking up to its potential, more than 20 years after its first use in California.

The technology is very straightforward. A CSP plant uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight and create heat. The resultant heat is then used to drive turbines and generators, just like in a conventional power station. Heat can also be stored in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue at night or on cloudy days. For once, no amount of hyperbole is excessive. CSP represents, as The Guardian stated recently,

    “A vast source of energy that holds the promise of a carbon-free, nuclear-free electrical future for the whole of Europe, if not the world.”

I could not put it better myself. In terms of its scale, therefore, CSP is a world away from the concept of solar photovoltaic technology such as the domestic roof-top solar panels with which we are more familiar in this country. The only issue with CSP is that it needs direct sunshine, and lots of it, to maximise its potential. Needless to say, it is not a technology that we will be seeing too much of in Dartford—or even, dare I say it, in Croydon, North.

Europe’s first commercially operating CSP plant has just opened in Spain, just outside Seville. It currently generates about 11 MW of electricity—enough to power up to 6,000 homes—but its operators hope that it will eventually produce sufficient power to meet the needs of Seville’s 600,000 residents. The deserts of north Africa, however, offer us the greatest potential as far as CSP is concerned. Each year, each square kilometre of hot desert receives solar energy equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of oil. Indeed, it has been calculated that we could produce the world’s entire electricity needs by covering less than 1 per cent. of the world’s deserts with CSP plants.

Desert-based CSP plants have the added advantage of allowing fresh water for crop cultivation and land irrigation to be created through the desalination of sea water using simply the waste heat from the CSP plants. The partially shaded areas under the solar mirrors also have many potential uses, including crop cultivation. It is even possible to imagine some energy-intensive industries choosing to locate in deserts to take advantage of CSP technology.

The key to realising CSP’s potential, however, is finding a reliable and above all cost-effective means of getting the power from the deserts to major population centres in Europe and elsewhere. The technology does now exist. Using high-voltage direct current, or HVDC, transmission lines, it is feasible and cost-effective to transmit electricity for more than 3,000 km. With modern high-voltage DC transmission, only about 3 per cent. of power is lost for each 1,000 km.

That means, for instance, that solar electricity could be imported from north Africa to London with a loss of power of only about 10 per cent. That compares extremely favourably with the 50 to 70 per cent. losses that have been accepted for many years in conventional alternating-current grids. Moreover, it has been calculated that 90 per cent. of the world’s population live within 2,700 km of a hot desert and could be supplied with solar energy from there.

The Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Co-operation, or TREC—a group of scientists and engineers in Europe, the middle east and north Africa—is trying to identify ways of exploiting the energy-generating potential of hot deserts. TREC is calling for the creation of an HVDC supergrid to enable the transmission across the region of energy derived from north African CSP plants.

Like a significant number of hon. Members, I strongly support the case for an HVDC grid. Such a supergrid could allow energy from other renewable sources to be transmitted across Europe. Britain could put in wind power, Norway hydropower and central Europe biomass and geothermal power. An HVDC supergrid could also be integrated relatively easily with existing HVAC—high-voltage alternating current—transmission grids. The potential is so large that one may consider the possibility of extending the use of clean solar electricity into areas where gas, oil and coal are currently the dominant sources of energy. It would, for example, be perfectly feasible to expand the use of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, extend the electrification of railways, make greater use of electricity-powered heat pumps, and so on.

Apart from the importing of solar electricity from desert regions, the proposed HVDC supergrid has several other advantages. The chief one is the security of energy supply: a shortfall in any one area could be met by spare capacity in another area or another country. It would also reduce wastage: surplus power in any one area could simply be transferred to where it is needed. Conversely, the impact of the variability of certain renewable technologies such as wind power could be reduced by being able to integrate supply across a wide area. The supergrid could also allow the UK to become a net exporter of clean electricity from our wide array of renewable sources, such as wind, waves and tidal power, which we possess in abundance. The economic opportunities that that would create for the UK are considerable.

Of course, set-up costs are considerable. The estimated cost of a Europe, middle east and north Africa-wide HVDC supergrid comprising 20 transmission lines of about 5 GW each is about €45 billion, while the approximate cost of two 5 GW transmission lines between north Africa and the UK is about €5 billion. However, given that those costs would be shared among several countries and spread over many years, the cost to the UK Government would be reasonable. It is an investment that will begin to look more and more attractive over time as the cost of generating power from renewable sources falls—assuming, of course, that the right package of incentives is put in place—while world oil prices look certain to rise still further as oil becomes scarcer and more difficult to extract, quite apart from the obvious imperative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

There is a pressing need for concerted governmental action to promote CSP and pave the way for an HVDC grid. Although CSP plants are being built and HVDC transmission lines are being installed, actions and changes in policies are needed to remove unnecessary obstacles and smooth the path for such developments. Those changes are needed mainly at the level of the European Union or beyond, but there are things that can be done in the UK. The UK Government can also help to influence the nature of decisions taken in the EU and elsewhere.

The first issue that needs to be tackled is the use of overt or hidden subsidies for non-renewable sources of energy. In a report published in 2004, the New Economics Foundation made a conservative estimate that worldwide subsidies for fossil fuels amounted to about $235 billion a year, and not much seems to have changed since then. Those kinds of support for old-style sources of power have the effect of tilting the playing field against the renewable sources of energy, including solar power, that we now so urgently need. All such subsidies should be removed.

The second challenge is to ensure that a proper price is paid for CO2 emissions. To a large extent, users of fossil fuels are still being allowed to use the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon dioxide—that must stop. The European emissions trading scheme has to work better than it has done up until now. In addition, there is a good case for introducing a system of tradable personal carbon allowances throughout the EU and beyond.

Thirdly, we have to ensure that the right framework of incentives is in place to encourage the growth of the renewable sector. Although CSP has quite a long history, its development has been held back because historically fossil fuels have been cheap. That means that it has not yet achieved the economies of scale and refinements in technology that will bring prices down, as is beginning to happen with wind power. If overt and hidden subsidies are removed from non-renewable sources of power, and if a proper price is charged for CO2 emissions, that will make a big difference to the economics. However, there may still be a need for some short to medium-term support for renewable sources of power, including CSP, in the form of feed-in tariffs. That system has proved to be very successful in Germany and Spain. By contrast, the UK’s system of renewables obligation certificates has so far failed to produce the expansion of renewables that we so desperately need. Moreover, if countries in Europe, north Africa and the middle east are to benefit from the CSP technologies, an international framework of feed-in tariffs will probably be needed.

Fourthly, we have to create a single market for electricity throughout Europe and beyond. It should be possible for any customer in the UK to buy solar power from any supplier in north Africa and the middle east in the same way that anyone in the UK can buy electricity from any UK supplier. Both the British Government and the European Commission are in favour of such development within the EU, but that does mean unbundling power generation from power transmission. They need encouragement to make that reform in the face of powerful economic interests that currently enjoy monopolistic benefits from the vertical integration of power generation with power transmission. Although the single market for electricity that exists within the EU would be a great help, it would be even better if it were extended beyond Europe to the middle east and north Africa.

Finally, we have to put in place the necessary policies to allow for the creation of a single, integrated high-voltage DC grid across the whole of Europe, the middle east and north Africa, or at the every least across the EU. At present, HVDC lines are commissioned on a case-by-case basis without reference to any overarching plan. It would be better if the EU, in collaboration with countries in north Africa and the middle east, decided to take the lead in terms of building the HVDC supergrid across the region. A good second-best would be a Europe-wide supergrid.

It would probably be best if such a project were funded by several national Governments, which is feasible. We could not integrate the road networks throughout Europe without each country paying its own share, and the same thing could easily be envisaged for a HVDC supergrid. There is no reason why such a grid could not be up and running within 10 to 15 years if it got the right type of governmental backing. It could be done much sooner than that if we simply integrated the existing AC grid and upgraded it to the necessary standard. I am told that that could be achieved in five years.

It is also possible to plan, design and build CSP plants fairly quickly, certainly compared with the process for conventional power plants. The lead-in time for building a CSP plant is about one year and the building time is about three years. Achieving that goal in the UK will require our Government, together with our partners in Europe, to make a strong commitment to CSP and the creation of an HVDC grid. Given the strong economic case made in the Stern report for strong, early action to combat climate change, I suggest that the Government have to act immediately.

I know from the comments made in the media by my hon. Friend the Minister that he shares much of my enthusiasm for CSP and that he appreciates the strong case for an HVDC grid. He has, however, expressed concerns about the long-term security of CSP energy derived from desert plants. While I understand those concerns, I do not necessarily share them. The first point to bear in mind is that CSP, even if we manage to exploit just a tiny fraction of its potential as an energy source, will help to increase substantially available energy supplies and thus diminish the risk of a global grab for energy.

Large-scale CSP production would also add to the global diversity of energy sources and reduce our reliance on conventional fuels. Oil is concentrated in a few small regions, but hot deserts and other areas with high levels of direct sunlight are widely distributed in the world, meaning that no country need be overly dependent on a few sources. The whole of the Mediterranean basin, for instance, has potential as a source of CSP production. It would be very difficult therefore to end up with an OPEC-style solar cartel.

If Europe were to rely on transmission lines for the import of electricity from the middle east and north Africa, those could feasibly be targets for terrorists. But the transmission grid can be designed to accommodate damage in much the same way that the internet was designed to be resilient in the face of military attack. Rather than rely on a few large transmission lines, electricity may be transmitted over an interconnected grid of smaller lines. That means that electricity can always bypass difficult or damaged parts of the network. If necessary, transmission lines may be buried underground or laid under water where they would be much less vulnerable to attack. Airtricity, for example, has proposed a supergrid of this type across the whole of Europe, composed entirely of buried cables.

In short, while we need to think through the energy security implications of expanding CSP production, we should not exaggerate them, or allow them to detract from the very strong argument before us in favour of CSP and the creation an HVDC grid.

I hope that the Minister will use today’s debate to underline his support for the technology and the creation of a grid, and I hope that he will set out a raft of measures aimed at facilitating the use of CSP in the UK as early as possible. I would like to end my contribution by paying tribute to the work of TREC and its supporters, particularly Dr. Gerry Wolff, TREC’s UK co-ordinator, in promoting CSP and the HVDC grid and in putting forward a powerful scientific and environmental case in support of them. Its efforts have done an enormous amount to advance the cause of renewable energy in the UK and throughout Europe.

6.14 pm

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) made interesting—perhaps for many people listening, unusual—and important points about concentrated solar power and the case for creating a high-voltage direct current grid.

I came into the Chamber during the earlier debate on Wales—I felt that I, as a mere Englishman, was trespassing—and I heard a reference to Cicero. To raise the cultural tone of this debate—not that it needs raising, following my hon. Friend’s eloquent and evidence-based speech—I remember that I once bumped into my hon. Friend, who is a friend in many respects, at a concert by Mr. Bob Dylan. I was searching for a suitable text for today and came up with:

    “Early one morning the sun was shining”.

I know that my hon. Friend will listen carefully to my speech but if, by the end of it, he can identify the song, I will be impressed.

Of course, climate change presents a considerable challenge, which affects us socially, economically and politically, and it requires a paradigm shift in our method of sourcing competitive and reliable energy supplies in future. As my hon. Friend knows, we have a target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. from 1990 levels by 2050. That requires several radical and bold steps.

I want to reflect on some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised about the specific technology he discussed and to re-emphasise our commitment to developing renewable technologies generally.

The Government are firmly committed to developing sustainable supplies of renewable energy for the UK and throughout Europe and we want to play our part in encouraging others on an international scale to do the same. The Government are committed to the expansion of renewables, and that sits alongside various other measures that we need to take, including on energy efficiency, civil nuclear power, cleaner use of fossil fuels through carbon capture and storage technology and so on.

As my hon. Friend said, the world has huge solar resources, on which concentrated solar power technology can clearly draw. I do not want to overstate the case because our role is currently modest, but the UK has participated in several European and international projects that examine the development and marketing of concentrated solar power systems. Work was carried out in the 1990s, when at least two small studies were commissioned on behalf of the then Department of Trade and Industry, and CSP plants now operate in California, Spain and other parts of the world. An organisation called SolarPaces has been set up by the International Energy Agency and is engaged in technology development, pilot projects and promotion in the relevant “sunbelt” parts of the world. Sadly, my hon. Friend was right to say that they do not include his constituency or mine. However, we in the UK have played our part in the work.

The debate focuses on the key issue of how the UK could benefit from concentrated solar power. Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient sun resources for that technology in the UK. Therefore, for concentrated solar power to be of value here, it would be necessary to establish the HVDC transmission network that my hon. Friend proposed. I accept the argument that an HVDC network has the potential to deliver energy across long distances with minimal losses. However, building and maintaining an infrastructure of HVDC transmission lines and managing a network that feeds into national grids across Europe is an enormous and expensive task, as my hon. Friend acknowledged.

My officials have discussed CSP with international counterparts, and there is a general consensus that building the infrastructure would be costly. However, some of our European colleagues are engaged in developing that technology. For example, we believe that support for CSP in Germany is primarily for developing a manufacturing capability, rather than for applying the technology within national borders.

We believe that fair, open and well regulated markets are the best way for us to achieve the massive investment in the clean energy needed, and to create opportunities for the most efficient and cost-effective technologies and solutions to develop and succeed. Concentrated solar power could have a part to play along with other technologies.

Here in Britain, the renewables obligation—our market mechanism for supporting renewable electricity generation—has, alongside other measures, such as the low-carbon building programme, been successful in nearly doubling renewable generation since it was introduced in 2002. Current Government policy is already set to deliver £1 billion of investment in renewables by 2010. The amount of renewable electricity eligible under the renewables obligation has almost trebled since its introduction, although I recognise that we started from a low base in Britain and that a lot more remains to be done.

We have also recently given consent to many major renewables projects, including the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, the London Array, and more than 20 other wind farms, including three consents issued today, at Keadby in South Yorkshire, Tween bridge in north Lincolnshire, and Gunfleet sands off the coast of Essex. We also recently granted permission for what will be one of the world’s largest biomass plants, which will be built in Port Talbot. As my hon. Friend knows, we are taking a hard look at the feasibility of a tidal power project across the Severn estuary and are currently in the stakeholder engagement process. If such a project is feasible, it could generate some 5 per cent. of Great Britain’s electricity needs, and from a clean, indigenous resource. A full formal public consultation will take place in early 2010.

I mention those things because we need a focus on our climate change objectives and a focus on renewable technologies. I have outlined some of the things that have perhaps a more immediate short to medium-term application in Britain. On solar power, we see—rather more modestly than my hon. Friend—an increasing number of solar panels on the roofs of people’s houses, which use a relatively cost-effective renewable technology. We also see the development of something that is as yet more expensive, but still important, namely photovoltaics, which produce not just hot water but electricity. We have a range of technologies that offer hope as we move forward.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to follow developments in concentrated solar power and long-distance electricity transmission. He referred to a number of experts with whom he is in touch. If he has time, I should be happy to meet him and some of his colleagues so that I can become better informed. I again thank my hon. Friend for introducing this relatively novel but certainly very interesting debate about solar power. I congratulate him on his enthusiasm and his strong information base.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Six o’clock.


Last updated: 2009-08-20 (ISO 8601)