Gerry Wolf, of Desertec-UK claims that, using proven technology, Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) could deliver the entire world’s current electricity demand using less than 5% of the world’s desert area. This could mean that the deserts of North Africa could power Europe.
These ideas have been around for a while. I wrote in my book Adapt and Thrive that the deserts could provide ‘liquid sunshine’ as a viable transport fuel. I used the term ‘liquid sunshine’ in order not to be prescriptive over which technology would win out. Some people argue for hydrogen; my personal favourite is a bio fuel produced by photosynthesis perhaps from algae grown in tanks. Of course this needs water and the sunniest places are deserts where, by definition, water is in short supply.
This is where CSP can work along-side liquid sunshine plants. CSP uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s heat which is then used to generate steam to power conventional turbines. The engineers have developed clever design concepts to store the heat so that the turbines can continue to run when the sun goes down. This means that solar electricity from the desert can provide the steady reliable power that our grids demand.
There is another fortunate development that engineers are working on. The CSP has ‘waste’ heat that can be used to operate desalination plants to extract fresh water from sea water. It is technically feasible to combine a CSP plant sending electricity to our cities over low-loss power lines with a plant to produce a bio fuel (my liquid sunshine) to be shipped and used in transport.
The engineers have the solution to de-carbonising Europe; all that is needed is the business case. That business case hinges on the price of fuel and energy. It is simple; we must accept much higher energy costs to give companies like Desertec the business case to deliver the engineer’s designs. ‘All’ we have to do is to overcome the political difficulty of much higher energy prices.