Friday, July 5, 2013

Desertec: the raft and the liner

The "Great Eastern" transatlantic liner. Launched in 1858, it was by far the largest ship ever built and it remained so for almost half a century. But it was too big to be practical and it was a commercial disaster. The ambitious "Desertec" project, the idea of supplying Europe with renewable energy from North Africa, may be facing the same destiny.   (image source)

I have been following the "Desertec" story for a long time; the ambitious idea of building large scale solar plants in North Africa, to produce energy to be shipped to Europe.

Desertec always left me perplexed. With its huge plants and a price tag of some 400 b$, I always though that it was like trying to go from a raft to a transatlantic liner without ever having built anything in between. In short, a modern equivalent of the ill-fated "Great Eastern" transatlantic liner, built in mid 19th century and way too big for its times. So, I was not surprised to read, recently, that the project is in trouble (see also here).

Not that the basic idea of the Desertec project is wrong. Northern Africa receives plenty of sunlight and it has large, empty spaces that could be profitably used to harness this energy to produce electric power. But that wasn't enough to make such a large project economically sound. The first problem was the collapse of the prices of photovoltaic panels. That undercut the original idea of the project that was to rely on the use of solar concentrating power. Then, with such low prices, it made sense to build PV plants directly in Europe. Even for a lower solar irradiation, one would still avoid the huge costs of the infrastructure needed for bringing electric power from North Africa.

More than that, the Desertec project suffered from having been conceived with a sort of "Apollo mentality"; the idea that, if we could go to the Moon, then we can do anything (provided that we are willing to spend enough money). But the Apollo success has never been repeated, even though the ghost of the Saturn rocket was evoked many times for other purposes, from an economy based on hydrogen to fusion power. This kind of huge efforts with a remote payback were possible in the 1960s, but not any more today. With so few resources left, priority is given to projects that promise rapid returns. And surely Desertec is not one of them. We don't have that kind of money any more.

There would be only one way to save Desertec: build first a time machine and then build the plants in the 1960s. (or, perhaps, at the times of the "Great Eastern".)


  1. Solar power in the desert has many hidden costs.. . .

    One of the most critical, is water to wash the solar array. Whether, PV or reflectors(mirrors) to concentrate direct irradiation, utility scale projects in the Gwe range occupy hundreds of hectares, with their solar collectors.

    The desert however, is a hostile environment, short on water, beset by storms(generally carrying sand).

    Maintenance of collection efficiency in the desert requires water to wash the sand(dust) from the solar array.

    Water, in short supply.

    Water, desperately needed for agriculture/husbandry.

    A savanna environment like northern Namibia is much kinder to the industry.

    And of course, with PV available by the container in Miami from SunElectric for $0.40/watt, and 2.5X10e10 sq meters of roof space on which to mount it(on dewellings alone)

    And with PV cells now achieving demonstrated conversion efficiencies of 35%, per NREL, it seems reasonable to expect power densities of 250watts/ sq meter within a few years, or 6.25X10e12 watts, = 6.25 Twe, on the roofs of US housing alone, not to mention the 6X10e9 sqmeters of commercial roofs in the US and it's possible 15X10e11 watts = 1.5 Twe of PV

    Of course,similar metrics apply to Europe.


    1. Well, as far as I understand, the plan was not to build the plans in the middle of the dunes of the Sahara desert. They would have been built in the coastal regions - where sand storms are not so common it is possible to find water. That was a marginal point, anyway

  2. 400 billion is not a small piece of change. How much of that was actually spent and who lost money? One would think that comprehensive economic and technical feasibility studies taking into account various contingencies (such as the possibility of falling future price of panels) would have been done before starting? Or were they not done properly because of the seemingly huge number of actors involved in the Desertec foundation and initiative? Too many cooks can spoil the soup and could have made such a project even more unwieldy managerially and organizationally than it already was because of its sheer size and technical complexity.

    1. No idea of how much money was actually spent. What I can say is that, for a while, in Italy there was some research money available to work on problems related to CSP plants; such things as diathermal fluid, corrosion of pipes, and the like. No more than a few million Euros, I figure, and it soon dried up

  3. Your perception of general decline fascinates me. This is not the perception in America, particularly in Texas, these days, and it certainly would not apply to China or various other places.

    The odd thing is that to my perception Europeans still live far better than anybody else and I'm always jealous of people with the right to live in Europe. I do not believe that Europe lacks capital resources. It is nevertheless fairly clear from a distance that efforts by the European collective tend to flame out in bureaucratic tangles and parochial rivalries. I am not convinced these problems are directly connected to resource limits.

    1. Ah, well, I imagine that in Texas the economy is buoyed up by the Bakken shale boom. Must be another world. You should come here to experience something totally different. The guy at the coffee shop, just this morning, told me, "I don't know what's happening, but people don't seem to come here to drink coffee any more". Sounds like Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

  4. Dr. Bardi

    I'm much taken with your idea of building a time machine and assigning the productive tasks to the past. An eminently rational solution to a difficult problem. But do you think it's such a good idea to encourage them with reasonable solutions? Maybe the technocrats should be kept on a shorter leash. But that said, why export the power at all? I've noticed that Europeans have taken to winging about becoming Islamised in the last decade, or at least ever since the neocons have somewhat abandoned America for the greener pastures of European Islamophobia. But here we see the same problems as obtain in North America. The trade treaties make economic life impossible in the southern regions so people move north looking for work, just as the elementary political economic formulas would suppose. 400 billion dollars sounds like a lot of money to me to but there are investment bankers who don't think so. Need 400 billion, just ask Ben. He'll fix you up (but ask soon). That would actually solve lots of problems if there was even the slightest political will to do so, but no.

    1. Yes, 400 billion euros over a time span of - say - 20 years is not such an enormous amount: around 20 bn/year. Your friendly banker, Ben, could provide that sum with a wink and a handshake. Peanuts

      The problem is that competition is becoming tight even for macadamia nuts. And Ben wants his money back. He wants it back soon and with a hefty interest. And he won't wait for 20 years....

  5. A wonderful conversation, that.. . .

    Which completely misses the point!

    CSP, which the Institute spent a great deal of time an energy on for the Republic Of Namibia, has been eclipsed by continuing advancements in PV.

    Unlike CSP, PV makes MORE POWER during cloudy days, and benefits from indirect radiation, because indirect(reflected) radiation does not heat the cells, causing inefficiencies.

    PV further developed it's power density from the time we were looking at CSP in the 2006 timeframe. PV further improved processing gains, and efficiencies, and with the implementation of proton-induced exfoilation, dramatically reduced the silicon content and energy content of each module.

    Today, CSP makes no economic sense compared to 21% efficient monocrystalline PV backed by NaS batteries. Unlike CSP mono PV NaS battery systems use materials that are readily available, is a solid state solution, is a solution suited to dispersed implementation, such as at each dwelling, and is a solution suited to mass production, with all the economies of scale that brings.


  6. I think that a scaled down Desertec will survive, but not to sell energy to Europe, buit to sell energy to the North Africans population, that are increrase very quickly and need a lot of energy, that expensive fossil fuels can't anymore provide to them.
    It is not a case that the first "Desertec inspired" power plant, the 160 MW Ouarzazate CSP plant, will give energy to the Morroccoans, not to Europe.

    I agree that PV have a lot of advantages on CSP, but this lasty have a big advantage, important in northern Africa: it produces a lot of waste heat, that can be used to desalinate sea water. A pilot plan near Egypt's Alexandria is experimenting exactly the combination of these two technologies



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)