The Important Solar Power Story You Haven’t Heard

The Important Solar Power Story You Haven't HeardWhen most people think of energy generated by the sun, they think of solar panels on rooftops. But another promising solar project is concentrated solar power (CSP), which harnesses the sun’s heat for thermal energy production in highly arid or desert environments.

“There’s so little awareness of CSP partly for the same reasons that Americans are unaware of energy production in general,” Kyle Ash, Senior Legislative Representative for Greenpeace USA, told The Faster Times in an email. “The issues remain technical to most people, while leadership on climate policy in the US has been scant and intermittent. People definitely conflate photovoltaic (PV) and CSP — thinking solar is solar. Even long-time environmental advocates in Washington still are unfamiliar with CSP.”

The first CSP projects date to the 1960s in Europe and 1980s in the U.S. The concept got a lot of press recently when the nascent Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) unveiled its concept to transport solar power from North Africa to Europe. DII’s proposal highlights the potential for CSP worldwide, including throughout a large swath of North America.

Of the four types of CSP technologies, parabolic troughs are the most mature and are commercially proven, according to a joint 2009 report from Greenpeace, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association and the International Energy Agency’s SolarPACES.

From North Africa to Europe

While the idea has been gaining recognition in recent years, the DII warns that it will be difficult to meet the extremely high expectations generated by recent media coverage, in a May 17, 2010 article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel. A June 4, 2010 article in the Berliner Zeitung highlighted DII and the World Energy Revolution study released June 7 by Greenpeace highlights the potential for electricity production from renewable energy sources.

Launched in July 2009 by 12 European companies, DII was founded as a limited company October 30, 2009 with Paul van Son, a Belgium energy executive, as its first CEO. Physicist Max Schön, who founded Desertec (now Desertec Foundation) and is current head of the DII supervisory board, often cites the fact that “within six hours deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes in a year.” The foundation date came a year after the 43 participants of the Union for the Mediterranean summit under French and Egypt leadership signed the Mediterranean Solar-Plan (MSP).

The article in Der Spiegel noted that DII will start with small demonstration projects in North Africa funded by small companies, but all under the Desertec logo. Morocco is particularly interested and the European Commission reported that three Maghreb countries, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria signed an agreement aiming to integrate the European and the North African electricity grid and “paving the way for Desertec.” Günther Öttinger, EU-Energy Commissioner, met with the energy ministers of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria in Algiers on June 20.

According to the Guardian, Morocco announced a 9 billion USD programme last year to develop 2 GW of solar between 2015 and 2019. A tender for the first 500MW project has already been launched with French support. In the meantime, Japan funded the first utility-scale PV project — at 1MW. According to Der Spiegel, France has founded a consortium called Transgreen to deliver solar power to Europe from North Africa and, at the same time, offer a counterweight to the increasing German dominance in the DII.

According to the same Guardian article, the DII says “it has allocated three years towards setting up a policy framework within the EU and MENA (Mediterranean and North African) regions to adequately fund and transport renewable energy from the desert to Europe.”

Plans for the kind of transmission infrastructure to construct are currently being discussed, a representative of The European Renewable Energy Council told The Faster Times. There is an existing transmission cable between Morroco and Spain, but it wouldn’t be sufficient to transport energy from CSP, she added. The representative didn’t know how much the EU would pay for the transmission line, but she did say that the EU will fund a maximum of 50 percent of CSP projects in Europe or North Africa, involving a European company. The Desertec website provides an overview of the concept and proposed transmission lines.

Skeptics doubt whether solar from North Africa can meet a substantial portion of Europe’s energy mix by 2020 or 2050 as DII hopes. And they point out environmental barriers, such as sandstorms, and terror threats, but proponents say these hazards can be overcome and that the project will stem the tide of illegal migration to Europe from Africa by creating jobs and providing local energy. Further, they say, it could establish a framework for water battles since the process involves water desalination.

US Prospects and Projects

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has fast-tracked plans to develop federal lands for solar. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Congress in January that 128 applications for utility-scale projects are under review by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

“We have huge solar potential in the deserts of the Southwest containing an estimated 2,300 gigawatts of energy capacity,” he told the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee. BLM has identified about 23 million acres with solar energy potential including Solar Energy Study Areas. Salazar says a key for solar development on public lands is to streamline federal paperwork and red tape.

According to Greenpeace’s Ash, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $16.8 billion for efficiency and renewable investment to be funded through DOE, but only $117.6 million is specifically for solar. He explained that CSP is one of the DOE’s four categories in its solar program. The legislation also included $4 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy projects, although Ash doesn’t know the amount slated for CSP, but said most of that money will go to Photovoltaic.

Nine plants were constructed in the Mojave desert in California by Israeli-American company Luz between 1984 and 1991, according to the CSP report. Acciona’s Nevada Solar One constructed in 2007 is the world’s third largest CSP plant at 64 MW producing power for 14,000 homes each year, according to the company website. The largest single parabolic trough installation yet proposed, Solana, is planned for a site about 70 miles southwest of Phoenix, Arizona.

“The Stimulus bill included an 8-year extension of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC), and allows public utilities to take advantage of that now. Feed-in-Tariffs (FiTs) were not included, although a handful of states have FiTs, including California where CSP investments are pending. This would be better than the ITC because, in addition to buffering investment costs, a FiT would guarantee grid access,” Ash said.

While it isn’t an energy panacea, the prospects for CSP are good: The cost is dropping — at about 15 US cents per KWh for solar generated electricity at sites with very good solar radiation, with predicted ongoing costs as low as 8 cents per KWh in some circumstances, such that CSP is becoming competitive with conventional, fossil-fueled peak and mid-load power stations, according to the joint CSP report.

Photo by Hamed Saber

Megan Harris has contributed to several English-language media outlets in Europe and was a correspondent for United Press International covering mainly security and energy news. ...read more

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