DESERTEC – A $560 Billion Dollar Solar Project

expandingsun

Dr. Gerhard Knies once said that deserts across the world receive more solar energy in six hours than all of humankind consumes in one year.  Dr. Knies is one of a group of visionaries working towards using the deserts in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East (called EU-MENA) to harvest solar power for electricity and clean drinking water.  DESERTEC, the entity running this project, has lofty goals with a large consortium of companies behind it.  By 2050, the plan is to have 20% or more of EU-MENA’s energy needs using clean, sustainable sources.  DESERTEC plans to employ concentrated solar power collectors (CSPs), accented by wind, water, and geothermal, and use high-voltage direct current transmission lines to accomplish their mission.  Watch Dr. Knies talk about CSPs:

DESERTEC released a map graphic of “the plan” in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa:

eumena

How this massive project will work is that solar energy will be harvested in the Middle East and in Africa, and it will be pumped into Europe.  There are two major issues that pop up in my head almost immediately:

  • How will you get the power across the sea into Europe?
  • Wait, isn’t this kind of a lose-win deal for the desert countries?  Is Europe exploiting the poorer region?

To answer the first question, an interview with Peter Löscher, the CEO of Siemens, one of the companies behind the initiative, gives the impression that undersea transmission lines will play a major part in moving this power around the region.  From the Spiegel article:

Top companies lined up on Monday to get behind the world’s most ambitious solar energy project. They signed a memorandum of understanding in Munich to set up the Desertec Industrial Initiative which involves what is being called a “solar technology belt” across the Middle East and North Africa, with a huge undersea “super grid” then delivering the power back to Europe.

The aim of the €400 billion ($560 billion) project is to provide carbon-free energy that could supply up to 20 percent of European energy needs by 2050.

At first the Desertec project, which arose out of a feasibility study commissioned by the German Ministry of the Environment, looked as though it might not get much further than the drawing board because of its hefty price tag. But a consortium of some of Europe’s heaviest financial hitters has come together to raise the required funds. Among others both governmental and non-governmental, this includes Deutsche Bank, energy giants RWE and E.ON, major insurer Munich Re and electro-engineering leader Siemens.

DESERTEC’s whitebook and redpaper (both PDF links) do a pretty good job of explaining the issues that we’re facing, like the growing population and the ability for our plant to sustain our growth.  One example is this excellent visual:

3earths

We’re consuming our resources faster than we’re able to keep up with their disappearance.  Our lighting, where it is getting better, is still not to a point where it sustains its growth.  The plan by DESERTEC is a smart idea, but I have some questions about its future:

  1. Who’s going to control this thing?  Is the administration for this body going to be multiple countries and multiple entities coming together to form a consensus, or is it going to become yet another small-body power hungry organization that makes closed door decisions on the fate of human kind?
  2. What is a realistic cost figure for this project?
  3. Is the United States and countries in this hemisphere at all involved in a project of this scope, and if not, why not?
  4. How is a project of this magnitude kept out of corruption and greed?  If you think about it, the country (or countries) who masters a plan like this has the ability to govern the remainder of those countries, especially when they run out of resources and methods for gaining new ones.

I like the idea here.  I’m a much bigger fan of life than I am super light killer mega death rays.

2 replies
  1. Blessedsun
    Blessedsun says:

    Dear Jim,

    Good introduction to the Desertec project for the layman.

    However, you seem to rely heavily on information from Desertec’s own PR machine.

    1. Who’s going to control this thing? Is the administration for this body going to be multiple countries and multiple entities coming together to form a consensus, or is it going to become yet another small-body power hungry organization that makes closed door decisions on the fate of human kind?

    *The parties behind Desertec are large corporations that operate in the area of centralized energy. Although funding is being sought from public sources (the German government, EU-MENA officials), the shareholders of the participating companies must control Desertec in order to recoup their ‘investment’ (i.e. sunbsidies converted into dividends).
    As often is the case with corporations, deliberations are unlikely to be open to the public.

    2. What is a realistic cost figure for this project?

    *The first figure mentioned was 400 billion Euros, but I can bet that it will be revised many times once the first funds are committed.

    Critics assert that Desertec’s planners understate costs and overstate the value of the power that will be generated:

    http://industry.bnet.com/energy/10001678/vattenfall-speaks-out-against-desertec/

    http://www.eurosolar.de/en/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=358&Itemid=98

    3. Is the United States and countries in this hemisphere at all involved in a project of this scope, and if not, why not?

    *The USA has experimented with CSP from deserts for more than 3 decades already, and it has its own deserts should projects of this scope be found viable. IMHO, the US should avoid involvement if the only reason is that a huge project with such a high price-tag is being proposed in Europe.

    http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/big_picture_solutions/concentrated_solar_power.html

    4. How is a project of this magnitude kept out of corruption and greed? If you think about it, the country (or countries) who masters a plan like this has the ability to govern the remainder of those countries, especially when they run out of resources and methods for gaining new ones.

    *Major riddle here! Siemens, one of the members of the consortium, was caught up in the worst cash-for-contracts scandal in European history only 3 years ago. The company claims to have reformed. In the NEMA region, ‘baksheesh’ is a normal way of doing business.

    Finally, an oft overlooked problem is the challenge of getting the MENA leaders to work together in such a way that their minds and not only their grids integrate seamlessly to pipe power northwards.

    Cheers!

  2. Blessed Sun
    Blessed Sun says:

    What a fantastic idea this Desertec. Long overdue, it will solve the water and electricity problems on the MENA countries, while supplying Europe with clean, green energy.

    The project costs are a pittance compared to the benefits. Even Greenpeace is behind Desertec.

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