Remarkable Desertec Project Gains Traction

Rona FriedBy RONA FRIED, PH.D.

Over the past few months, the Desertec Industrial Initiative has made impressive progress. The “impractical, pie-in-the-sky” concept, which few thought would actually take shape, now looks like a visionary and realistic plan for turning much of the Sahara desert into solar fields. Besides providing local clean energy, it would supply a solid 15 percent of Europe’s energy via transmission cables laid under the Mediterranean Sea.

Desertec now has 56 partners in 15 countries, and key projects, including the transmission infrastructure, are falling into place.

desertec map

In November, Morocco got the go-ahead for a 500-megawatt (MW) concentrating solar power (CSP) plant. The World Bank will provide $297 million in loans to help finance the first phase of construction.

The Ouarzazate CSP plant will be the first in Morocco’s $9 billion solar program. Five more plants are planned between 2015 and 2020 for a total capacity of 2,000 MW. The plants will, of course, mitigate the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, while generating home-grown energy for the first time. Morocco now imports almost all its energy, mostly oil and coal.

In 2009, the World Bank’s Clean Technology Fund approved a $750 million investment plan for CSP in the Middle East and North Africa regions. The fund plans to raise an additional $4.85 billion for projects in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. The goal of the fund is to develop 900 MW of CSP in the region by 2020.

In late January, Algeria signed onto an unbelievable 22 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy, to be installed by 2030. Algerian energy company Sonelgaz signed the agreement with Desertec. Ten GW of that energy will be exported to Europe.

And Tunisia just joined the Desertec project with an agreement to build 2 GW of CSP. The mammoth TuNur solar thermal plant, which will also have thermal storage capacity to produce electricity into the night, will be six times larger than any CSP plant built yet. It will supply energy to about 750,000 homes in Europe.

Mediterranean solar developer Nur Energie will build the plant. The company will manufacture the plant’s 825,000 heliostats in Tunisia, creating about 20,000 jobs and spurring investment in solar skills development to maintain the plants long-term.

Nur Energie has already signed an agreement to deliver the energy to a grid operator in Italy via ultra-efficient direct current transmission cables, which only lose about 3 percent of power per 1,000 kilometers.

Desertec and STEG Energies Renouvelables also signed a memorandum of understanding to conduct pre-feasibility studies for large-scale solar and wind projects in Tunisia, including their integration into local grids and export of power to Europe.

The grid-development project, Medgrid, plans to build transmission cables under the Mediterranean Sea to export about 5 GW of energy to Europe as early as 2020.

CSP plants are notorious for water consumption, needed to cool condensers and keep the heliostats clean. That’s especially true in the Sahara, where blowing sand deposits layers of dust. In a partnership with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, Siemens is designing new surfaces that repel dust and resist sand build-up.

Founding members of Desertec, which was formed in 2009, include Sweden’s ABB, Spain’s Abengoa Solar, Algeria’s Cevital and the German companies Deutsche Bank, E.ON, HSH Nordbank, Muenchener Rueca, M+W Group, RWE, SCHOTT Solar and Siemens.

It looks as if this far-reaching plan could actually be coming to fruition.

Consult your financial advisor before making any investment.

Rona Fried, Ph.D., is president of sustainablebusiness.com, the online community for green business: daily green business and investor news, green jobs and the green investing newsletter, The Green Investor. contact fried at rona@sustainablebusiness.com.

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