Developing Desertec: European Dream of Desert Energy Takes Shape
Can the Sahara Desert really meet Europe's voracious appetite for energy? The Desertec solar power project aims to do just that, but a host of obstacles remain. Overly optimistic expectations are now being scaled down as the project starts to take shape.
When the sun rises and it's still hazy over Andalusia, the future is particularly visible. That's when beams of light as thick as tree trunks and as sharp as lasers slice through the haze. They come together just below the tops of two towers, the taller of which rises 162 meters (531 feet) into the sky, taller than Cologne Cathedral. These light beams are not being emitted by some UFO, but are in fact the core of the most advanced solar power plant in the world.
The towers are surrounded by close to 2,000 mirrors that face the sun. Each mirror has a surface area of about 120 square meters (1,290 square feet) and, like flowers, they follow the light, to the sound of a rattling motor that orients them toward receivers up in the towers. The bundled solar energy, which reaches a temperature of 250 degrees Celsius (482 degrees Fahrenheit), strikes steel pipes through which water is conducted. The water vaporizes and drives a turbine. The facility, known as PS20, is the world's largest solar power tower and generates enough electricity for 10,000 households.
There is not a cloud in the sky on this spring morning, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) west of Seville. "It's easy today," Enrique Sales Rodriguez says with satisfaction, as the turbine roars and the tower runs at full capacity. Rodriguez, an engineer, monitors the technology from a control room at the base of the tower. He reacts quickly whenever large clouds appear in the sky, making adjustments to the system to extract as much energy as possible from the rays of the sun. Everything is designed to increase the harvest of light. Trucks equipped with large blue cleaning brushes are constantly roaming through the rows of mirrors. "We clean 24 hours a day," says Rodriguez.
The solar towers at the Solúcar plant, which is owned by the Spanish Abengoa group, are the most futuristic system the solar industry can offer today. Scientists love this technology, because it is capable of converting so much solar heat into electricity.
Solúcar is a prototype of sorts for Desertec, the 21st century's energy production mega-project. The bold concept is designed to provide Europe with clean, renewable energy in the form of solar power from the Sahara. It has the capacity to avert the energy crisis and stop climate change, while simultaneously combating poverty in Africa. Not surprisingly, experts and politicians alike applauded when 12 companies initiated the Desertec Industrial Initiative last summer. The consortium includes multinational corporations like Siemens, major banks like Deutsche Bank and German energy giants E.on and RWE. They are all eager to be involved, if and when the dream becomes reality.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was enthusiastic, the president of the European Commission was rapt and ordinary people were fascinated. The plan foresees Europe deriving almost all of its electricity from renewable sources within 40 years from now, with a sizable portion of it coming from the Sahara. For many people, the dream is even more momentous than the Moon landing. But, at an almost inconceivable estimated cost of 400 billion ($492 billion), it would also be more expensive.
One day, the plants in the Sahara could provide Europe with 700 terawatt hours of energy a year, more than the combined energy generated by 100 nuclear power plants. At first, it seemed as if the project could get off the ground in no time, with German reinsurance giant Munich Re providing the funding, Deutsche Bank providing loans and Siemens building one mammoth solar power plant after another in the sands of the Sahara.
That, at least, was what the governments of North Africa had been led to believe. "Desertec faces a problem, because public expectations have become too big," says Mike Enskat, who coordinates energy issues in North Africa for the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). The people there, says Enskat, "thought to themselves: Here comes Desertec, and they'll be throwing billions around."
But it isn't quite that easy. All it takes is a visit to the Munich office of the Desertec Industrial Initiative to quickly realize that the future is still a long way off. "It's a small startup, a room with eight people in it," says Desertec spokesman Alexander Mohanty. The office is so crowded that he has to walk out into the hallway if he wants to make a phone call in peace. Each of the participating companies pays 150,000 a year into the group fund, the sort of money companies like Siemens or RWE could pay out of their petty cash. Desertec CEO Paul van Son, an affable Dutchman, is the first to dampen expectations. "We're not investors," he says, "and we're not project developers."
What are they then?
"We are an idea," says van Son, "a movement." For the time being, the disciples of light keep themselves busy lobbying the German government, the EU and other governments in Europe and North Africa, hoping to find out what exactly Desertec should be asking for, and what underlying conditions must first be fulfilled to turn the idea into reality. Initial construction plans have also been produced.
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