Clean power from deserts

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TIMESCALES FOR INTRODUCING Desertec POWER INto EUMENA

Gerry Wolff

This page describes how Desertec could start to deliver clean power from deserts throughout EUMENA on timescales that are much shorter than has been assumed.

Climate change and the need to find new clean sources of energy are very important and politicians are clearly worried about those things. But they are even more worried about something that is relatively new: the fact that the prices of oil, coal and gas are rising fast and are already creating problems for many voters, and the fact that nuclear power is proving to be much more expensive than had previously been thought (see Nuclear reactors will cost twice estimate, says E.ON chief). There is now is quite a lot of evidence that the world has reached "peak oil" and may be close to "peak coal" (see Peak oil and peak coal ). For that reason, I believe it is likely that the cost of fossil fuels will continue to rise. Meanwhile, the cost of CSP is falling. Vinod Khosla has suggested that CSP is already cheaper than electricity from "clean" coal and is likely, quite soon, to be cheaper than electricity from "dirty" coal. CSP is a key part of Google's project to develop renewable energy that is cheaper than coal.

I believe that CSP can deliver clean power throughout EUMENA much more quickly than we have been assuming. If that is true, it should be of great interest to politicians because it may help to solve the immediate and politically-sensitive problem of rising energy prices. This could be a major factor in persuading politicians to support the Desertec proposals, over and above the fact that Desertec can help solve the climate crisis.

The TRANS-CSP report implies that solar imports into Europe must wait until relevant parts of the HVDC transmission grid have been built and that this would be done progressively from south to north. The table on page A-33 of the report suggests that there would not be significant CSP imports into Europe before 2020 and then only into a few countries, mainly towards the south of Europe. Countries further north would not receive any solar imports before 2030. A similar picture of a relatively slow development from south to north is outlined on the TREC website.

An alternative strategy is to start using the existing transmission grid immediately and upgrade it as the quantities of electricity increase. This would have the psychological advantage that politicians and others would be able to see the benefits for their own area much sooner than if they had to wait for relevant HVDC lines to be built. This in itself would provide an incentive for people to pay for the HVDC lines and other upgrades to the grid that would be needed, and to pay for the building of new CSP plants.

Here is a bit more detail:

  • In many ways, a transmission grid behaves like a lake or pool of water: it is possible to add some water at any point and take out the same amount of water from any other point so that, in effect, that volume of water has been transferred from one place to the other without it being necessary to move it physically between the two points. In a similar way, electricity may be 'transferred' from one part of a transmission grid to another without it being necessary to transmit it all the way between the two places. This idea is discussed on a page about the cascading principle.
  • What this means is that countries throughout EUMENA (including countries in the north of Europe) can start to benefit from CSP as soon as the CSP plants have been built. In principle, any country in Europe could be importing CSP electricity right now from the new CSP plant near Seville, although the administration will be easier when the European internal electricity market (IEM) has been completed (more below).
  • The existing HVAC transmission grid may be upgraded relatively quickly and cheaply in the following main ways:
    • By removing bottlenecks in the grid and by installing transmission links at critical points where none exist right now (eg between Tunisia and Sicily).
    • By installing technologies of the Flexible Alternating Current Transmission System (FACTS).
    • By converting existing HVAC transmission lines to HVDC. There is evidence that this can increase transmission capacity by a factor of 3 or more.
    There is more about these possibilities on the page about upgrading an existing HVAC transmission grid. Notice that these kinds of upgrades to the existing grid would have little or no visual impact so it is unlikely that people would object to the upgrades because of any effect on the scenery (see the page about how to minimise the visual impact of new transmission lines).
  • As the quantities of electricity increase, there is likely to be a case for building new HVDC lines but these need not necessarily be overhead landlines. Many of these lines could be laid as submarine cables (see Aitricity's proposal for a European supergrid composed entirely of submarine cables and the page about how to minimise the visual impact of new transmission lines). This could reduce planning delays and simplify the process of laying the lines. Andris Piebalgs, EU Energy Commissioner, has said that the creation of the proposed pan-European sub-sea supergrid should help the incorporation of large quantities of offshore wind into the European electricity market and that it should be developed quickly (see EU's Piebalgs says grid infrastructure needed quickly for offshore wind energy, 2008-03-31).
  • As mentioned earlier, the European IEM will make administration easier and it is taking shape now (see, for example, Compromise in sight on energy liberalisation , EurActiv.com, 2008-05-16). Extending the single market for electricity to MENA would be a useful and might form part of the Union for the Mediterranean project. But even without that extension, it should be possible to import CSP electricity from MENA into Europe. And of course CSP electricity may be transmitted throughout MENA.
  • An important point is that CSP plants can be built relatively quickly, in 3 years or less. Certainly, they can be built much more quickly than nuclear power plants. New CSP plants are already being built in Spain, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. With the right political and financial impetus, CSP generating capacity may be ramped up fast.
In summary, I believe that Desertec could start to deliver benefits throughout EUMENA much sooner than has been suggested in the TRANS-CSP report. Since this may help to solve the politically-sensitive problem of rising energy prices, it should be of great interest to politicians.
Last updated: 2009-08-20 (ISO 8601)