Thursday, July 1, 2010

CSP/Supergrid politics

The €400billion Desertec ‘energy from the deserts’ initiative was launched last year as a feasibility study by a group of large 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. But although the launch attracted a lot of media attention, it seems to have backfired slightly- some of the North African countries who would be the likely hosts to CSP projects felt they had not been sufficiently consulted, according to Bernhard Brand, writing in Sun and Wind Energy 5/20/10. He noted that, while the Desertec group was trying to widen its membership with, for example, the inclusion of some Moroccan and Algerian companies, industrial based initiatives were likely to come into conflict with regional political sensitivities. In which case, you might think that political initiatives would be more successful. However, he reported that the Union of the Meds parallel Solar Med project was somewhat ‘stuck in the sand’- of diplomatic and bureaucratic wranglings. He suggested that within the N African/Middle East context, the most likely movement will be from companies which are controlled by powerful (usually Royal) families.

Sun and Wind also carried an interview with the leading Egyptian renewable energy supporter Prof. Amin Mobarak and others who are 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. One point that emerged was that the use of CSP for the desalination of water might be more important locally than electricity production. 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 was 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. It was also pointed out that wind power was much cheaper, and was seen as the most promising option for the moment- the Desertec group has indicated that it will include wind projects.

Desertec is not the only player however. Transgreen is a French led supergrid project being developed as part of the Mediterranean Union’s Solar Med programme, which 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 it seems 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 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! And the technology exists and its economics and performance is improving. So CSP could become a large-scale reality. And EU commissioner recently said that the first power could arrive in the EU in 5 years. But, as can be seen, it could be that institutional and political issues will be the main problem for CSP, as the big EU companies line up to develop this vast new resource and local interests begin to negotiate terms for access and control. So it may take time to reach any scale: despite talk of $400bn, 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.

A fully integrated CSP/supergrid scheme- there’s talk to 200 GW (200,000MW) or more eventually - could offer benefits to all in terms of a major source of green energy, plus, locally, fresh water, jobs and income, but it also 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.

For more on renewable energy policy and developments see