a concentrated solar power plant
With the recent ‘killing off’ by the Government of the feed in tariff in its current form, and on the back of that the demise of the UK’s small solar install business, it is always interesting to see ‘interesting ideas’ for the future development of solar energy.
The latest idea (well it’s not particularly new to be honest) is to make use of one of the worlds sunniest locations – North Africa;
It is a beguiling idea – harvest sunshine, and a little wind, from the empty deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, and use it to produce clean power for the region and for Europe.
It’s not an idea by a group without some clout either. Desertec, a group based in Germany have heavyweight commercial backers including Siemens and Deutsche Bank, and believe the scheme would also bring the regions around the Mediterranean closer together, while providing jobs and stability for the countries in the south – not sure about that one (possibly gives them more to fight over?)
It has chosen Morocco, which is embarking on its own ambitious solar programme, for its first “reference” project – a plant meant to show that its grand vision is feasible. They expect to see the first electricity flowing through undersea cables from Morocco to Spain as early as 2014.
Its goal is to use desert power to supply up to 100% of local needs and up to 15% of European demand by 2050. But is this realistic?
According to a study by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), a state agency that provided data used by Desertec, less than 1% of suitable land in the North Africa and the Middle East would be needed to cover the current electricity consumption of the region, as well as Europe. And of course many countries with intense sunshine also have large tracts of uninhabited land – so the model could work.
But creating the power is the easy bit – it’s the network to distribute it that presents a series of formidable problems, from nomads stealing solar components to the technological and political challenges of transporting and delivering electricity over such a vast area.
Desertec points to a pair of cables already installed between Morocco and Spain – though for now these are carrying power from north to south. It says it will work closely with Medgrid, a French scheme to enable the construction of a Mediterranean transmission system.
The technology exists, and is getting cheaper, but it is untested on an intercontinental level.
The technology that will initially be used in Morocco is concentrated solar power (CSP), a process in which sunlight concentrated by mirrors heats water, which produces steam to drive a turbine. Crucially, the heat can be stored, allowing a secure supply even when the sun is not shining.
CSP has been getting cheaper, but not as quickly as photovoltaic (PV) power – the use of solar panels to convert sunshine directly into electricity. The DLR estimates that solar thermal power stations will become competitive with their fossil fuel equivalents between 2020 and 2030.
With the current instability in the Euro Zone it would take a lot of common thinking for the agreement to be reached to pull this type of development together – unlikely at this time. But it is a very clever and sensible way to progress renewable production – but it may need to wait for better financial times.