'Fueling continents with desert light is within our reach'

Scientists, business leaders, policymakers gather to discuss consumption, innovation, global preparedness in face of looming energy crisis.

By
March 23, 2011 07:15
KATRIN-SUSANNE Richter, director of the DESERTEC

KATRIN-SUSANNE Richter, director of the DESERTEC. (photo credit: Lior Tzadik)

By the year 2050, an estimated global population of 10 billion will demand approximately two-and-ahalf times the amount of energy consumed today, a challenge that one European nonprofit organization says can be solved under the sunlight of Middle Eastern and North African deserts.

“Within six hours the deserts of the world receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes within a year,” said Katrin- Susanne Richter, director of the DESERTEC foundation.

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Richter was speaking at the fifth annual 2020 Environment conference on Tuesday, in which representatives from the nonprofit, government, academic and business sectors from both Israel and abroad discussed goals and challenges for the future, presented potentially sustainable solutions for energy consumption and took a look at global preparedness and risk management plans for times of crises.

The conference was hosted by BMP Moran Productions, the Environmental Services Company and the Yuval Levy law firm, in conjunction with Tel Aviv University’s Porter School for Environmental Studies and PricewaterhouseCoopers Israel.

“We are talking about the reduction and elimination of waste, so I see a very tight connection that this is happening 30 days ahead of Pessah,” said Prof. Pinhas Alpert, head of Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environment, referring to the tradition of cleaning out hametz from homes during the upcoming holiday.

In order to accomplish such reduction, Alpert, speaking by phone Monday, stressed that “the collaboration of the academy with different environmental organizations” and the business sector is crucial.

“While in the past we believe that nature is some sort of infinite resource and that it can absorb waste infinitely, today it is clear to everybody that taking advantage of these resources year to year is just not sustainable,” said Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan in his introductory address, in which he promised to continue addressing this conference in years to come.

“We have to slam on the brakes,” Richter agreed in her speech, explaining that there are only 750 billion tons left in the “global carbon dioxide budget to emit into the atmosphere,” which at today’s rate of production would already be emitted in under 25 years.

“There’s an urgency to find big solutions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change,” she said.

But the good news, according to Richter, is that “there is an abundance of clean energy in the world.”

DESERTEC specifically encourages the use of solarthermal energy in the world’s vast plots of desert, which is particularly convenient because 90 percent of the world’s population lives within 3,000 km. of a desert – a distance sufficiently close for power transmission, according to Richter.

DESERTEC focuses its plans in the EU-MENA region – the Europe-Middle East-North Africa region – which by the year 2050 will need 7,500 terrawatts of energy per hour per year.

Among renewable energy options, biomass would be able to produce approximately 890 Twh/year, geothermal: 750, wind: 1,700 and hydropower: 1,090, Richter said.

But according to DESERTEC estimates, a solarthermal “highway system,” or grid that would connect the entire region, would generate 600,000 Twh/year.

This type of solar-thermal power – called Concentrating Solar Thermal Power (CSP) – has been in commercial use for more than 20 years around the world, Richter said. Unlike photovoltaic solar panels, the system uses curved, parabolic mirrors to collect concentrated sunlight, which in turn heats up synthetic oil that boils water, which produces steam to drive a turbine.

Combining CSP with other renewable energy sources in the EU-MENA area, DESERTEC foresees potential for a “large-scale international integration of renewable energies in a big supersmart grid.”

But opening such a grid across European, Middle Eastern and North African land would not be an easy political feat and would pose huge financial costs, Richter acknowledged.

“Our experience in talking to governments in North Africa and the Middle East and Europe is that there’s a great openness to this, it’s so obvious that this is a very powerful way forward,” she told The Jerusalem Post following her speech.

“I believe that there’s a lot of motivation in many government to make it happen – to create the right frameworks and incentives.”

In the Arab countries in particular, Richter sees participation in such a network as a big opportunity to attract investments and provide jobs that are desperately needed.

But aside from political complications, the system would be quite expensive.

“We’re talking about billions of euros or dollars of investments,” Richter told the Post. “But it is clear that today this technology is not competitive with fossil fuel, so obviously it does need some kind of incentives to attract those investments.

And that is a political decision, if countries will want to build this. As soon as more plants are built, costs will come down.”

Addressing other ways to tackle energy consumption and fossil fuel emissions, Jonathan M. Weisgall, vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs at MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, discussed his company’s $4.5 billion investment in building wind farms in the midwest and western US.

“We see wind as a customer- effective, cost-effective resource and one that we work very closely with our regulators to deploy,” Weisgall said, admitting, however, that “wind is an extremely fickle and intermediate resource” that can die down suddenly, and that “you can generally count on when the sun is going to shine better than when the wind is going to blow.”

Among the strongest forerunners on the clean energy front, in Weisgall’s opinion, is natural gas.

“Natural gas is a rising electricity source in US and in Israel,” he said, calling it a “bridge fuel” to renewables.

“It is a domestically abundant source in the US, such as it is in Israel in the Mediterranean.”

One of the biggest problems Weisgall sees in terms of getting renewable sources a bigger presence in US energy market is that environmental legislation is nearly impossible to pass through Congress.

“We do not have a comprehensive policy and I don’t think we ever will,” Weisgall said, noting that as opposed to the UK or Israel, the US is just too large and has too many varying resources spread across the country to ever create such a policy.

Israeli experts echoed the desire for such a comprehensive policy here.

“I think that if Israel does not adopt an environmental policy we will fall behind,” said Prof. Yehuda Kahane, of the faculty of management at Tel Aviv University’s Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration, and the 2011 recipient of the Bickley Founders Award, the most prestigious award in the insurance industry.

Other developed nations “have overtaken us after three decades of negligence,” Kahane added, stressing that Israel now needs “to take a quantum leap” and “grow at a very accelerated rate.”

Erdan expressed optimism about Israel’s growth and the progress of environmental legislation in Israel, noting that “every business, every industry” is now affected by environmental issues, not simply the “tree-huggers.”

“We see a trend in increased environmental legislation,” Erdan said. “It’s not some sort of a yoke or burden on the industry but on the contrary, we produce some sort of a springboard to the commercial sector in Israel,” he added.

He noted that such legislation will “ensure that Israeli companies will be competitive and leading and innovative” and that they “continue and compete in the international market.”

To stay viable in the market, Erdan said that companies need to be “wise enough to produce and market materials in such a way that will make it easier to recycle these materials, so at the end of a cycle we’ll have plenty of materials at a lower price.”

“[Such a company] won’t have to worry about future legislation because it will already be prepared in advance,” he said.

Preparedness and risk – a final segment of the conference – could not pass without mentions of the recent crises in Japan.

“I think that there is no Hollywood director that could have made a movie that is so powerful and drives a point home,” said Eitan Silbiger, after showing aerial footage of the disaster, including oil terminals in flames. “Are we being prepared for these mega-scenarios? These scenarios where nature rocks us?” But Weisgall said that despite the disaster, nuclear energy development will not – and cannot – stop because “there just isn’t enough [power] to go around.”

“We don’t look at the hazards of nuclear energy in the same way we look at coal. We don’t look at the thousands of miners who get killed every year mining the coal, not to mention the asthma,” he said, comparing a nuclear disaster to an airplane crash, which, while few and far between, is feared by people globally.

“We are wired as people to fear these spectacular events,” he said.


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