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The Desertec Industrial Initiative aims to supply Europe with 15% of its energy needs by 2050. Companies who signed up to the $400bn (£240bn) venture include Deutsche Bank, Siemens and the energy provider E.On.

The consortium, which will be based in Munich, hopes to start supplying Europe with electricity by 2015.

Desertec Industrial Initiative aims to produce solar-generated electricity with a vast network of power plants and transmission grids across North Africa and the Middle East.  

Concentrating Solar Thermal Power (CSP) plants are ideal for providing secure solar power. These types of power plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight to create heat which is used to produce steam to drive steam turbines and electricity generators.

Heat storage tanks (e.g. molten salt tanks or concrete blocks) can be used to store heat during the day to power steam turbines during the night or when there is a peak in demand. In order to ensure uninterrupted service during overcast periods or bad weather (without the need for expensive backup plants), the turbines can also be powered by oil, natural gas or biofuels.

As an interesting side effect (and of great benefit to local people), waste heat from the power-generation process may be used to desalinate seawater or to generate cooling. The main reason for favouring CSP over photovoltaics is its ability to supply power on demand for 24 hours a day.

PV is more expensive than CSP and needs expensive systems for storing electricity, such as pumped storage. If pumped storage facilities in Europe were to be fed with relatively large amounts of electricity from fluctuating sources from MENA, there would be a need for more power lines and those lines would be under-utilized since they would operate at full capacity for only a few hours each day. 

HVDC transmission is very much more efficient than the use of hydrogen as an energy vector: Using High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines, loss of power during transmission can be limited to only about 3% per 1000 km. Although there would be transmission losses up to 15% between MENA and Europe, they are more than offset by the fact that levels of solar radiation in MENA are about twice what they are in southern Europe.

Furthermore there is much less seasonal variation in levels of sunshine in MENA than there is in Europe. The technologies needed to realize the DESERTEC concept have already been developed and some of them have been in use for decades. HVDC transmission lines up to 3 GW capacity have been deployed over long distances by ABB and Siemens for many years.

In July 2007 Siemens won a bid to build a 5 GW HVDC System in China. At the World Energy Dialogue 2006 in Hanover speakers from both companies confirmed that the implementation of a Euro-Supergrid and an EU-MENA-Connection is, technically, entirely feasible. 

Solar thermal power plants have been in use commercially at Kramer Junction in California since 1985. New solar thermal power plants with a total capacity of more than 2000 MW are at the planning stage, under construction, or already in operation.

The Spanish government guarantees a feed-in tariff of about 26 Eurocent/kWh for 25 years, thereby establishing favorable business conditions for CSP in their country. Where there is more sunshine, it is possible to realize cheaper feed-in tariffs, as for example at good locations in Africa, America, China, India, Australia or MENA.

The DLR (German Aerospace Centre) has calculated that, if solar thermal power plants were to be constructed in large numbers in the coming decades, the estimated cost would come down to about 4-5 Eurocent/kWh. Because the costs for raw materials for solar thermal power stations are rising more slowly than the price of fossil fuels,

CSP may become competitive earlier than previously expected. At the moment, production bottlenecks and strong demand are keeping prices high. In order to establish, by 2050, a capacity of 100 GW of exportable solar power in MENA, over and above the domestic needs of sun-belt countries, state support will be required in the initial stages to make the building of power stations and transmission lines attractive to private investors. An approximate investment forecast for the TRANS-CSP scenario has been researched by the DLR.

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