Solar power plants planned for Sahara

Around a dozen companies are set to launch a renewable energy initiative on Monday that its backers claim could within a decade provide Europeans with electricity generated from the Sahara – at a cost of €400bn ($557bn).

Munich Re, the German insurer, Deutsche Bank, utilities RWE and Eon and industrial conglomerate Siemens are among the bluechip names that will form a company to explore the technical and geopolitical challenges of peppering the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East with solar mirrors.

By joining together hundreds of solar thermal power plants and wind farms with high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission cables under the Mediterranean sea, the founders of the Desertec Industrial Initiative hope one day to supply 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity needs.

Concentrating solar power plants use the sun’s heat to generate electricity. Hundreds of mirrors focus the sun’s rays on to a receiver containing a heat transfer fluid, such as oil. This heat energy is used to produce steam which drives a turbine, much like in a traditional power station. Unlike photovoltaic solar cells, CSP plants are able to generate electricity at night or on cloudy days, by storing the heat they produce.

Compared by Wulf Bernotat, chief executive of Eon, with the challenge of putting a man on the moon, the Desertec project would require the creation of a €45bn electricity super-grid covering Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

A study by the German Aerospace Centre estimated the total cost of the project at €395bn.

Although feted in the German media, Desertec is not without its detractors, who see it is an expensive flight of fancy, first cooked up by ardent professors and political idealists, and now embraced by corporate spin.

However, the initiative has already won an army of powerful supporters, including Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, who laud its potential to cut greenhouse gases.

Although companies joining the consortium acknowledge the project’s complexity, they insist the technology is ready to implement it. Concentrating solar power plants have been used in California since the 1980s.

Meanwhile, HVDC cables are already capable of transporting power over hundreds of kilometres without large efficiency losses. “The [Desertec] project has been on the drawing board for 30 years and now for the first time it has become technically feasible,” said Wolfgang Dehen, chief executive of Siemens Energy.

Power companies are keen to be associated with the project but have also stressed the practical difficulties involved.

On a recent visit to the UK to talk about Eon’s investments in low-carbon energy, which are principally in wind power, Frank Mastiaux, chief executive of Eon’s climate and renewables division, warned that the time horizon of such projects was “very long”.

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