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".)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)