The most ambitious solar power plan ever conceived may be coming into some serious cash.
A group of 20 German firms is forming a consortium this July to begin raising $555 billion for the much-discussed Afro-European solar research project known as Desertec, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed this week.
Desertec seeks to transform Saharan Africa into a solar hub for Europe by constructing a supergrid of concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP) on 6,500 square miles of North African desert. They claim their scheme could eventually meet much of the continent's electricity needs.
Half a trillion dollars in funding would certainly be a tremendous start in that direction. In fact, that kind of financing would be enough to power 15 percent of the continent by 2050.
Talk about a boost for Big Solar.
The news of the colossal cash infusion is grabbing global headlines. And it's no wonder. The firms involved are some of the heaviest hitters in Europe: insurance giant Munich Re, German engineering leader Siemens, Deutsche Bank, energy companies RWE and E.on, among others.
If these companies can bring the Desertec idea to life, it would be no exaggeration to say they would change the face of solar energy generation for the whole world.
The companies involved haven't offered many details yet. But Torsten Jeworek, a board member of Munich Re, delivered this dollop of optimism:
"Technologically, the project is practicable," he said.
CSP systems have been technically successful for years. The first large-scale project was built in California's Mojave Desert in the 1980s. As oil prices plummeted, CSP enthusiasm waned rapidly. But recent concerns over climate and energy security have brought it back from the dead. Spain and the U.S. Southwest have plugged in new installations in recent years, with thousands more megawatts on the way.
The allure of the technology is in its simplicity. CSP systems are comprised of giant arrays of solar mirrors that concentrate direct desert sunlight to drive a conventional steam turbine and generate electricity. Simple, yes. But one cannot underestimate how powerfully effective these systems could be for future utility-scale clean energy generation.
Case in point is this claim by Desertec: If just 0.3 percent of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle Eastern deserts could be captured with these super solar mirrors, it could power all of Europe.
But the plan is not without challenges – the biggest being transmission. Even a cursory discussion of details can't help but raise the question: Is it plausible to export 100 GW of solar power across the Mediterranean into Europe without mass losses?
The answer, say the Desertec researchers, is yes – if nations were to build High-Voltage Direct Current transmission lines that would integrate with existing and less efficient HVAC transmission lines. This would result in relatively minimal line losses of 10 percent or less. The good news is that the technology exists. Prices remain prohibitive, but signs are there that costs are dropping.
In March, Anthony Patt of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis let the world in on what's happening on the cost front. He said the price of CSP for North Africa is indeed getting on par with alternative technologies. And most importantly:
"The cost of moving [electricity] long distances has really come down," he said.
The actual details may come out sooner than anyone expected. Munich Re claims that concrete plans will be on the table in just two years' time and energy could be flowing into Europe in 10.
Naturally, the project has its nay-sayers. Some say it's far too expensive and too risky relative to rooftop solar. Others in Germany see it as an excuse for the government to ease back on support for domestic solar projects. And accusations of greenwashing directed at the companies involved have also been flying around. You can see a good sampling of the criticisms here, in Spiegel Online's coverage.
But there is a vital point that hasn't been lost on most observers. The discussion to raise big bucks for Desertec is being led by big business in the midst of a global financial meltdown.
Meaning, a group of major corporations may in fact be using the downturn as an opportunity to green their operations and the world energy supply, and, obviously, improve their bottom lines in the long term.
What a novel idea.