An interesting (if not entirely new) idea is being followed through by Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company, this month to form a consortium called Desertec to explore the feasibility of using North African sunshine to power Europe’s electricity needs. The companies involved include many of Europe’s big hitters in the field of energy including power suppliers RWE and E.ON, engineering group Siemens and financial backers Deutsche Bank.
The idea is to build solar thermal power plants under North Africa’s cloudless skies and generate electricity that could be transmitted via 20 subsea High Voltage DC cables to Europe. Solar thermal power stations concentrate the sun’s ray using mirrors and either generates steam in a boiler to drive a turbine during the day or low melting point salt to store heat and essentially do the same during the hours of darkness. Munich Re’s preliminary estimates put the cost at $560bn to build enough power stations for 15% of Europe’s energy needs by 2050. The plan is outlined in the Economist and some bright spark has added in the comments section a back of napkin calculation that at that rate meeting all of Europe’s energy needs would cost just Euros 11/month ($15/m) for 40 years up to 2050. Zero carbon emission power production essentially starts with a credit in Europe due to the carbon credits emitters are required to hold and would no doubt also qualify for all kinds of EU support.
Considerable technical challenges remain. Plants in southern California and Nevada experience loss of performance following sandstorms. Mirrors are sandblasted and either have to be re-polished or at least cleaned. Saharan North Africa is likely to be much worse than the southern United States for sandstorms. However the technology is proven if still offering considerable potential for improvement. The Californian plant successfully generates 354 mw by heating oil to 750 degrees F and then water to steam. There is also the question of replacing one politically sensitive energy source ” oil from the Middle East and gas from Russia ” with another politically sensitive supply source ” electricity from North Africa. A Greenpeace study suggests Spain may offer almost as much sunshine, incur much lower power transportation losses and offer fine wine and tapas into the bargain. Sounds like a done deal.