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Desertec’s plan for Saharan sun to power Europe burns out

Political and technical problems have sunk a mega-plan for huge banks of solar plants in the Middle East and Africa to power Europe with clean desert sunlight

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(Image by Desertec Foundation

As a concept, Desertec was ambitious. Produce abundant clean electricity for Europe from vast concentrating solar power (CSP) plants in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.

But after five years attempting to turn theory into practice, the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), a consortium formed in 2009, is effectively dead in the water after being abandoned by the majority of its shareholders.

Dii had pledged Desertec infrastructure would meet as much as 15% of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050. However, in October last year companies chose not to renew their contracts as part of the consortium.

It’s a long way from 2011, when Dii said Desertec was “all systems go”. It was building a 500MW CSP plant in Morocco; it was in talks with Tunisia and Algeria to do the same, and from 2020 would “scale up” into Egypt, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia. All it needed was signatures on paperwork.

The price tag matched the hype. At a cost of 400 billion euros (US$480 billion), Dii would conjure electricity from the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, feeding it to Europe along high-voltage undersea cables beneath the Mediterranean. Dii estimated the region’s wind and solar potential at 800GW across 40,000 square kilometres.

Big names such as Siemens, Bosch, E.On, HSBC, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank and Munich Re signed up. At its height there were some 57 Dii shareholders from 16 countries, with Germany providing the most. But by late 2012, Siemens and Bosch had pulled out and now only three shareholders remain, to whom Dii will become a consultant: ACWA Power (Saudi Arabia), RWE (Germany) and the State Grid Corporation of China.

SGCC joined up to learn more about transferring renewable power from China’s sparsely populated western regions to its populous and power-hungry coastal cities.

Political instability clouded Desertec’s prospects. “The Arab Spring uprisings came at just the wrong time for Desertec. Energy security was always a worry, but suddenly it became a reality and investors got nervous,” says Dr Christopher Sansom of Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, an expert on CSP technology.  

Wrong region?

With demand for energy in Africa as a whole far outstripping supply, the logic of generating electricity for Europe struck many as bizarre, if not positively postcolonial. At an energy conference in 2012, the vice-president of Algeria’s National Economic and Social Council also questioned whether European electricity prices would “give us a return on investments”.

“It makes sense for the MENA countries to address their own supply issues before looking to export energy to Europe,” says Sansom.

Other factors in sinking the project included lack of shareholder consensus on how the electricity should be produced, and which regions should benefit most, MENA or Europe.

Quitting Dii in 2013, the not-for-profit Desertec Foundation - originator of the Desertec concept - cited “many irresolvable disputes ... in the area of future strategies, obligations and their communication”.

Exporting power to Europe was central to the initial Desertec concept. However, obtaining declarations of intent from MENA and European governments proved so arduous that Dii reined in its ambitions. By June 2013, it was promising to meet only 10 per cent of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050 and was focusing more on power projects to benefit MENA countries.

Dii chief executive Paul van Son said Europe’s infrastructure was not up to the job of receiving cheap renewable energy from MENA and criticised Europe’s “sleeping” leaders, who lacked a “sense of urgency” and “should build the infrastructure.” Van Son is departing for RWE in December 2014.

Europe’s aging grids

The infrastructure and regulatory frameworks of key European countries turned out to be a poor fit with Dii’s ambitions as existing European grids are not robust enough to cope with surges of energy generation from weather-dependent renewables.  

Initially, Dii hoped to bring electricity into Europe through a cable between Morocco and Spain. But Spain was unwilling to tax its already overburdened national grid. In May, the Brussels-based grid association Entso-E warned that eight European countries might need to cut back on solar and wind generation when demand was low to prevent overloading the grid. Spain was particularly at risk, it warned, as its grid did not have enough capacity to export excess power.

AbuBakr Bahaj, who heads the University of Southampton’s Energy and Climate Change Division, says super-grids optimised for existing centralised power generation and distribution are “currently not flexible enough” to cope with more energy from renewables at times of low demand. EU member states agreed in October to build them, at a likely cost of 125 billion euros over decades.   

Yet Europe has a growing need for more green energy and such issues could be dealt with by control and storage strategies, and eventually smart grids, he adds.

He believes the Desertec concept is still a good one because it “competes head on with centralised power stations operating day and night,” could eventually lessen dependence on more-polluting power plants, and offers the additional benefit of providing energy to and power for desalination plants in Africa.

Costly technology

But Desertec under Dii was also hobbled by its technology. In the years since Desertec was conceived, solar photovoltaic (PV) power, not CSP, has become the solar technology of choice. Solar panels are cheaper, simpler and can be used anywhere. CSP is expensive, complicated and many-parted (parabolic troughs heating liquid to produce steam that drives turbines), and relies on high levels of sun. The mirrored troughs also require a ready and plentiful supply of water for cleaning the mirrors and cooling.

“It’s difficult not to conclude that at least part of the [Desertec] collapse is traceable to the low cost of PV, now much lower than CSP,” says solar energy expert Dr Richard Perez of the University at Albany, New York.

Although CSP has a higher capacity for storing energy, the advantage of PV is that it “does not require pristine direct sun to function adequately, making it deployable everywhere and not only in arid locations,” says Perez. European countries, particularly Germany, were already invested in PV, which does not need the bright desert sun, around which the entire Desertec concept revolves.

Indeed, responding to the launch of Dii in 2009, German parliamentarian Professor Hermann Scheer, who was chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy at the time, called Desertec a mirage that its initiators knew had “no prospect of success.” Dii had chosen to ignore new technological possibilities for storing solar and wind power within Europe, he observed.

Learning curve

Could the Desertec concept still have its day in the sun? After all, an International Energy Agency report concluded in October 2014 that solar power will achieve commercial “take-off” in the next decade and overtake fossil fuels as the world’s biggest source of electricity by 2050.

The flagship CSP plant announced by Dii in 2011 is being built at last in the desert 200 kilometres from Marrakesh. However, it is being built by the Moroccan government to power Moroccan homes, as part of the country’s ambitious plans to produce 42 per cent of its electricity from solar, wind and hydroelectric by 2020.

Similar plants are springing up in most MENA countries, creating a broad technological knowledge base, while the US SunShot initiative is expected to drive down the cost of CSP over the next five years.

Meanwhile the TuNur project, a partnership that includes former Dii shareholder Nur Energie, announced in October 2014 that it will go ahead with plans for 10 CSP plants in Tunisia of 200MW each to feed power to Europe through Italy.

TuNur is pure Desertec in concept, but like Desertec it needs to find backers, build plants and deal with the complexities and costs of feeding electricity into the European grid. Like Desertec it requires signatures on paperwork.

Similar proposals are likely in future as CSP becomes cheaper, provided the region is sufficiently politically stable, Samson believes. But timing is critical. “In 10 years’ time, Europe will have already made other arrangements,” he says. “In that case the vision of EU power from the Saharan sun will have to wait another 20 to 30 years.”

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

有趣的文章,但有一些误差

感谢你们刊登这篇关注沙漠科技的文章。沙漠科技产业行动计划(简称“Dii”)的使命是帮助中东和北非地区政府整合再生能源,继而出口到欧洲。这是一个长期任务,Dii将会继续履行它的职责。由于区域成份至为关键,Dii将会由慕尼黑迁往杜拜。文章似乎暗示,Dii在项目发展中没有发挥任何作用。地区政府与业界以及国际社会的合作,势必将发展置于公开且健康的市场环境下。因此,Dii也将会协助这一发展。 Dii一直致力推广各种可再生能源科技,如风能、太阳能光伏(PV)及聚光太阳能发电(CSP)技术等。最初在2009年,聚光太阳能发电备受瞩目,大众的目光都好像聚焦在这项技术身上。但现在情况发生了很大改变。我们对科技的认识更为平衡,相信每一种技术在市场上都拥有它的优势。

祝好
Dii负责人 (德国莱茵能源集团2015中东、北非地区与土耳其负责人 )
保罗·范·松
www.dii-eumena.com

Interesting Article, but note some inaccuracies

Thank you for this publication, paying attention to Desertec. Note that the mission of Dii continues to be helping local governments in MENA to integrate renewables in their area, eventually export (to Europe). This is a long term mission, Dii will simply continue its work. As the regional component is key, Dii will be moving from Munich to Dubai. Dii had never any role in project development itself, as the article seems to suggest. Local governments and industry in cooperation with the international community will naturally take care of project developments, in a healthy, open market context. Dii will, thus, assist upon demand.
Dii has always promoted ALL renewable technologies, such as wind, PV, CSP, etc. Initially in 2009 a lot of emphasis has been given to CSP, as that technology seemed to need special attention. The situation has changed a lot. Our view on technologies is highly balanced. We believe that each technology will have its own merits in the market.

Best regards, Paul van Son CEO of Dii (per Jan. 2015 Country Chairman for MENA and Turkey at RWE) www.dii-eumena.com

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

为何需要大型的太阳能项目?

这是规划太阳能项目时需要上的一课。在印度西北部拉贾斯坦邦,巨型太阳能发电站正在动工。拉贾斯坦邦是一个炎热干燥的地区,夏季时沙尘暴很严重。同时,当地水资源亦十分稀有。像印度般的大国,需要屋顶太阳能电池板、小型风能充电器、沼气发电、使用可再生能源的煮食器材及一些荒漠肉质植物,例如龙舌兰和仙人掌。除此之外,节约电泵组因灌溉与照明所消耗的能源也是重要一环。

印度 内洛尔博士

Why Large Solar Projects?

This is a lesson to be learnt when planning large solar projects. In Rajasthan,India Mega Size Solar plants are coming up.Rajasthan is a dry and hot state where in Summer in the desert region LU sand storm is a problem. Also water is scare there. In aq big country like India Roof top solar,small wind chargers,Biogas power and cooking units with input from care-free growth,regenerative and CAM plants like Agave and Opuntia is needed.Apart from that Energy Conservation in Electric pumpsets for irrigation and lighting is essential.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

关于欧洲的太阳能问题?

有没有关于马格里布/萨赫勒地区太阳能的文章?他们不需要发展吗?

Solar energy for Europe?

Anything about solar energy for the Maghreb/Sahel region itself?
None, eh? They don't need to develop?