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Only connect: CSP/supergrid issue

A Desertec ‘energy from the deserts’ initiative was launched last year as a feasibility study by a group of major German energy companies and banks keen to install large Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) arrays in desert areas and transmit some of the power back to the EU by undersea High Voltage Direct Current supergrids.

Desertec is not the only player however. Transgreen is a new French led supergrid project now being developed as part of the Mediterranean Union’s Solar Med programme. Solar Med includes proposals for installing 20 Gigawatts (GW) of renewables by 2020, using a mix of technologies: around 6GW of wind, 5.5GW of CSP and nearly 1GW of PV solar in North Africa and the Middle east. And to link it up the Mediterranean Union has proposed a ‘Mediterranean Ring’ – a grid system linking up countries around the Med, including power from CSP in North Africa/the Middle East being transmitted to the EU via HVDC links under the sea.

That’s where Transgreen comes in. It might be seen as a rival to the German-led Desertec project, given that Transgreen’s aim is to bring together power companies, network operators and high-tension equipment makers under the leadership of French energy giant EDF. But the idea seems to be that Transgreen will focus on transmission, and just deliver part of the energy generated by the Desertec CSP projects to the EU- and there is already some overlapping membership. A €5m study phase is underway.

The energy potential for CSP is huge- there is a lot of desert! There is talk of 200GW or more eventually being installed. The technology exists (in Spain and the USA) and its economics and performance is improving, with molten salt heat stores allowing for continued use of solar power overnight. So CSP could become a large-scale reality, while HVDC transmission losses are put a 1-2 % per 1000km, so long distance export seems credible. An EU commissioner recently said that the first power could arrive in the EU in 5 years.

However, despite talk of a $400bn programme, at present the Desertec initiative is only just a concept- not yet a formally funded project, although some independent CSP projects are already underway e.g. in Egypt, Jordon Algeria and Morocco, which could become part of it. A 470 Megawatt (MW) hybrid solar/ gas fired unit, with 22 MW of CSP, has just been started up in Morocco, Egypt is nearing completion of a €250m 150MW hybrid unit near Cairo, while the UAE has plans for 1000MW CSP unit.

These and other projects may of course just stay independent, at least initially and not export any power. After all, Transgreen too is only just starting up as a concept. And there will certainly be some interesting routing issues for it face. For example, does the proposed French Transgreen link-up to Morocco have to go across Spain, or can it go undersea direct? That’s much more expensive, 1200km of marine cable at maybe €1m/km, rather than two stretches of 200km undersea. The trans-Spain option does also allow Spanish wind power to be fed in, but the undersea line avoids land use and local or regional or indeed national political conflicts. Spain has recently had a major a battle getting a HVDC grid link across the Pyrenees to France. It had to be put underground, at increased cost- although it’s worth noting that it is evidently easier to put HVDC cables underground than conventional AC grid links, since there are less heat losses to deal with.

There are also some wider regional and indeed international political issues. We have suffered enough from the politics of oil, it is to be hoped that the politics of solar would be different.But there is the risk of a neocolonial resource grab- with investors rushing to get sites in North Africa and the Middle East and then seeking to get access to the power at favorable rates. At the very least it will be important to negotiate fair trading arrangements. However there is also a need to consider what is wanted locally. While the EU media has often waxed lyrical about the concept of power from the desert, some of the countries who would be the likely hosts to CSP projects to supply the supergrid, evidently feel they had not been sufficiently consulted. They may have their own views.

The trade journal Sun and Wind recently carried an interview with a leading Egyptian renewable energy supporter, Prof. Amin Mobarak, and others involved with a Masters course run jointly by the Universities of Kassel and Cairo, aiming to help local people to get on top of the technical and political issues associated with CSP. (Sun and Wind 5/20/10). One point that emerged was that the use of CSP for the desalination of water might be more important locally than electricity production (That actually is part of the Desertec plan). In addition, electricity demand was rising rapidly in the region, so there might not actually be that much spare for the EU! However, electricity prices were often subsidised locally (e.g. in Egypt) for social policy reasons, and that would be hard to change. So, initially at least, the relatively high price of CSP power might mean that it could only realistically be sold abroad.

But then comes the accreditation issue. EU Commissioner Guenther Oettinger recently said that, to avoid the import of non-renewable electricity from coal and gas-fired plant in north Africa, ‘we need ways to ensure that our import of electricity is from renewables’ However he believed it was technically possible to monitor electricity imports to the EU to see if they came from renewables. It is not immediately obvious how. And of course there is the wider question of overall security of supply: if it was getting 15% of its electricity from desert project, as Desertec plans, the EU would not want to risk being cut off. Plenty of issues to haggle over then- quite apart from the issue of local environmental impacts on fragile desert ecosystems. That has already led to some limitations on projects in the USA in relation to the protection of desert wildlife.

Some argue that we should not import green power, but should focus on our own resources in the EU. Certainly we should not use remote desert CSP as an excuse not to develop our own extensive renewable resources as fast as we can- large and small, locally and nationally. However a fully integrated supergrid system, including links to offshore wind, wave and tidal in the North West, as well as to CSP in desert areas, could offer benefits to all, in terms of helping to balance variations in the availability of renewable energy around the entire region. And locally, CSP could offer power, fresh water, jobs and income. Moreover, as far as the planet is concerned, it doesn’t matter where the projects are located, as long as they reduce/avoid emissions. If the best sites for solar are in desert areas, so be it. But politics and economics intervene. The CSP/supergrid concept opens up range of new- and old- geopolitical and development issues. Not least who gets the power, and at what cost, and who gets the profits.

Parts of the above are from my presentation to a Summer Academy on ‘Transnational Energy Grids’ at Greifswald University, Germany, in July.

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