Energy venture Desertec hopes sun will shine on new future

Desertec’s project is based on assertion that within 6 hours, the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than mankind consumes in a year.

By AMIRAM BARKAT / GLOBES
April 16, 2011 22:19
The Jerusalem Post

Solar Field 311. (photo credit: Bloomberg)

 
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It is quite ironic that Desertec director Katrin-Susanne Richter came to Israel as turmoil raged in Libya. Desertec is a futuristic energy project of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Richter was in Israel to speak at the recent Environment 2020 conference in Tel Aviv. This is the fifth year that the conference has been held.

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Richter was here to speak about the vision of making the Sahara Desert bloom with solar fields that will supply electricity for Europe and on the ability of the solar-energy project to foster trust and advance peaceful solutions.

In an interview with Globes, during what was the first visit by a Desertec representative to Israel, Richter said despots such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and fundamentalist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood have no place in Desertec’s future vision of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Globes: Do the events in Libya have a direct effect on Desertec?

Richter: “We had talks with Libya but haven’t gotten to speaking about specific projects. In the long run, I believe that the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will very much help the project, under the assumption that the new governments that will be set up will be interested in a project like Desertec, which will help the future of the state.

“Desertec is a tremendous source for creating value and developing a sustainable economy in terms of the number of jobs it creates and the possibility to take on more advanced technologies.”

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Have the problems at the nuclear plant in Japan given you a boost? “Even before Japan, it was claimed that renewable energy is much more appropriate for generating electricity in MENA countries than setting up a nuclear plant.

Renewable energies are relatively lowtech, and they can be developed in the countries themselves. A nuclear reactor is a product that arrives prepared, and the country which buys it receives few advantages from it.”

Desertec’s project is based on a statistic it constantly reiterates: that within six hours, the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than mankind consumes in a year.

To translate the vision into reality, the Desertec Foundation is promoting as a first phase the establishment of giant solar fields in the Sahara Desert that will be able to supply about 17 percent of Europe’s electricity usage by 2050.

The solar fields will also serve the demand in MENA countries, whose electricity consumption is expected to grow by about six times and to become about the same as Europe’s.

“It must be remembered that MENA countries will need to deal with another problem: a shortage of drinking water,” Richter said, adding: “Desalination plants will need a lot of electricity, and they are very suitable for solar energy in terms of hours of demand.”

But in countries such as Libya or Algeria there is no shortage of fossil fuels like oil or natural gas.

“That’s right, but these are finite natural resources, and we believe that in these countries as well a strong awareness will develop about the affect of greenhouse gasses on the climate. These are countries that in the future will be very affected by changes in the climate.”

Desertec, founded as an initiative of scientists from Middle Eastern countries, has so far remained below the radar of Israeli companies, who assumed that politics will block their way to the project. Israeli companies look into nearly every possible market around the world, except those of their nearest neighbors.

Despite that, Richter is willing to take the risk of being called naive, in saying that Israel actually will be a welcome guest at the venture.

“I’d like to see Israel as a leader in this project,” she said. “This is a technologically developed country with a lot of knowledge. Israel is very suitable for a local leadership role which will develop the connection between other countries and help them to develop their renewable-energy industry.”

The Desertec project began to operate fully in 2009. In the past year, Morocco has published tenders for setting up solar fields generating a total of 2,000 megawatts by the year 2020, and Tunisia is expected to publish similar tenders. While these are quite modest goals, Richter said the intention for the future would be to build groups of solar-energy plants generating 250,000 MW to 1 million MW each.

The planned fields will use thermosolar technology called concentrated sun power. This method concentrates the heat of the sun’s rays on steam turbines.

The electricity generated in the solar fields will be carried to Europe on a transport network that will be laid out in geographic connection areas such as the Straits of Gibraltar, the straits between Italy and Tunisia and, in the future, from Turkey to Greece.

The electricity will be carried by direct current, which allows for transport over long distances but requires building an expensive infrastructure of transformers at the ends of the lines.

A group of leading European companies took upon itself the task of dealing with the technological and financial challenges of the venture, but Richter believes the mission is doable.

“The technology already exists today, but it is correct that there are challenges in production,” she said. “We need to quicken the technological development in order to lower production costs, and for that we need government policy that will support production, like power-purchase agreements for investors or feed-in tariffs.”

What is your biggest challenge? “First on the political level, and then on the financial level. In the MENA countries, the political problem is connected to the fact that the cost of electricity for citizens in many countries is very subsidized, and renewable energy has to compete with it.

“Another problem that is very prevalent in Europe as well is that the electricity producers are still very national and not integrated. In Europe we have national feed-in tariffs, which refer to electricity produced in that country.

We are a player that supports development and harmonization of national electricity economies.”

And what about the political disputes in the Middle East? “I think that in this area Desertec has an important message about the ability of mutual economic dependence to create trust and peaceful relations. Our experience is based on countries like Germany and France, which fought each other for hundreds of years, but since the establishment of the European Common Market the possibility of a violent dispute breaking out between them anytime in the future has become inconceivable.”

The Desertec Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 by a group of scientists who developed the idea of an energy connection between Europe and Africa and the Middle East. The organization also founded the industrial initiative Dii GmbH, a partnership with leading European companies from the finance, insurance and industrial sectors, whose goal is to solve the operational and financial obstacles faced by the project.

The companies include Siemens, ABB and Munich Re.

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