solar panels, desert by creative commons
A consortium of mainly German companies such as Deutsche Bank, Siemens, E.On., and RWE is planning a renewable energy project focused on the large solar promise of the North-African Sahara Desert. The first power plant, a 500 Megawatt installation in Moroccan Ouarzazate will use large mirrors to concentrate sunlight to heat liquids which in turn will drive generator turbines. The ultimate goal is for a network of these concentrated solar, together with photovoltaic (direct sunlight-elecricity), wind, and smaller sources like biomass, geothermal, and classical hydro-dams, to provide 15% of Europe's electricity needs by 2050. Costing a whopping 400 billion Euros, by 2050 it's estimated to have produced 2 trillion Euros worth of the invisible gold.
The idea is sound. Cover the largely unused and unusable sands of the Sahara with solar panels. Everybody plugs in, everybody wins. Plus, switching to green energy will help energy-hungry Europeans ween themselves off environmentally calamitous, and geo-politically fraught hydrocarbons like oil and gas.
A few concerns though:
It is natural for big, centralized energy concerns to go for big, centralized energy generating projects. And yet, technological developments are showing an inverse trend, namely that of decentralized or distributed and more localized generation and consumption. The advantages are two-fold: Less money is wasted on long high-voltage wires and less power is lost during transport over those same long high-voltage wires. An additional bonus is this: local consumers can band together to set up small-scale generators, possibly in tandem with local industry (re-use of machine cooling water for domestic heating, off-peak use of photovoltaic installations on factory rooftops), agricultural (biomass), small-scale hydro, etc.. All of this adds up to empowerment, a conscious attitude about consumption patterns, and sensitivity to the (close-by) environmental impact.
The Desertec Industrial Initiative as it is called doesn't mention how Europe's current import dependency of 50% might be reduced. The Initiative's website claims the investment is aimed at supplying the North-African market with power, and export whatever's left, almost as an afterthought. In addition, the project is expected to spur on development, stability, and create 240.000 German(!) jobs. What about the "Saharans' then? Granted, today's is an inter-connected and inter-dependent world. No country is an island. But, there are partners, and there are partners. In this case one delivers all the hard-ware and know-how, the other cheap land and even cheaper raw materials, namely sunlight. Once more, large Western companies (in this case predominantly German), are left to set rules and prices, backed by their governments who will prize stability and local toothlesness above all other traits. Sound familiar?
It is a fallacy to think Europe shouldn't be able to cover its own energy needs from a localized, diversified set of renewables. By means of a relatively small sum of money every individual house, every office tower can be turned into a net producer of power. The technology isn't tomorrow's. It isn't cold nuclear fusion. Thin-film photovoltaic cells, micro-turbines, molten salt and hydrogen storage; you name it. Cars can become power stations on wheels. As the average car is parked most of the time, it can be plugged into the grid when idle, providing premium electricity back to the grid. This means that if about 30 percent of European drivers used their purported electrical vehicles to sell energy back to the grid, most of the power plants on the continent could be eliminated. An investment of 400 billion could, subsidizing 10.000 Euro for every electrical vehicle, put 20.000.000 of those power plants on the road in a couple of years time.
Desertec doesn't tick enough boxes to warrant the big investment. Too many questions remain. Older solar technologies require a lot of water, which, as you might know, is a bit scarce in North Africa. Will this venture, apart from paying vague lip-service to potentially using some of the juice to desalinize water for the locals, opt for newer, more environmentally friendly technologies? Explosive demographics and rising energy needs of the host countries are bound to upset power-sharing arrangements with the consortium in the medium term. Will political instability invite the same intervention-happy reflexes of the oil era? Are we in fact not at risk of making the exact same mistakes that blighted the 20st and early 21st centuries?
Think big and act local is no longer just for hippies. We have the technology now.