African Concentrated Solar Energy to Power Europe

The report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) says solar concentrated thermal power plants can play a central role in moving the European power grid to renewable energy sources by 2040.

Such concentrated solar power units "are able to provide energy at any time, to compensate for fluctuations in the supply of renewable energies…and help stabilise the power grid," Robert Pitz-Paal, director of the study published earlier this month, and co-director of the German Institute for Solar Research told IPS.

These virtues make "the value of the electricity generated go beyond just the kilowatt-hours they feed into the system," Pitz-Paal said.

Solar units use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and convert it into thermal energy. This process achieves temperatures of 400 to 1200 degrees Celsius, which can be used to generate power in the same way as a conventional steam-operated power station.

The technique has been in use since the 1980s, but experts say it only reached maturity during the last decade. Solar units are in operation on a significant scale in western U.S. and in Spain.

A giant plan to install solar units in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region called the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) was announced in the summer of 2009. The solar units under this would feed North African energy demands, and also deliver electricity to the European Union (EU).

The plan was drawn up following studies by the Club of Rome, an independent development group, and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), a state-owned research institute and part of the EASAC.

Earlier this month DII announced construction of a 500 megawatt (MW) solar unit in Morocco next year. DII was set up by ten large European companies, including the German electricity providers E.ON and RWE, the electronics giant Siemens, the insurance company Munich Re and Deutsche Bank. Now, more than 50 companies have joined DII.

DII chief executive Paul van Son says the solar power plant in Morocco would be a "reference project" to show investors and policy makers that the Desertec project can work as a major source of renewable electricity.

Van Son said the plant in Morocco, to come up at a cost of 2 billion euros (2.8 billion dollars), should be in operation in 2015.

The first phase of the 12-square-kilometre Moroccan complex will be a 150 MW facility costing up to 600 million euros. Other plants in Tunisia and Algeria would follow, he said.

EASAC points out that the EU has established ambitious energy and climate change objectives. EU targets include a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (rising to 30 percent if international conditions are right) and to increase the share of renewable energy to 20 percent.

In the longer term, the EU has committed itself to substantially decarbonise energy supply, with a target to reduce the region’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2050.

The EASAC report points out that present costs of generating electricity from solar power panels match the cost of generating power from offshore wind farms. But that means, Pitz-Paal said, that renewable energy sources are two to three times costlier than fossil fuel plants.

According to the study, progressive introduction of solar power panels, backed by appropriate levels of research and development, will lower generating costs by 50 to 60 percent over the next 10 to 15 years.

"Given the strides currently being made in technology and the rising price trend for fossil fuels, we believe that electricity from solar power panels will become competitive with fossil fuel counterparts somewhere between 2020 and 2030," Pitz-Paal said.

Furthermore, solar power panels’ capacity to store electricity and deliver it on demand eliminates the need to have fossil fuel or nuclear power stations on standby to satisfy the base load – the amount of power required to meet minimum demands based on estimations of consumer requirements.

Wind and solar farms are heavily dependent on weather conditions. Because electricity grids are not able at present to store enough electricity, fluctuations in renewal energy makes standby, conventional power plants indispensable to meet the base load demand.

This handicap of renewable energy sources would disappear with new solar power panels and with new intelligent grids capable of storing electricity and delivering it on demand, the study claims.

The study also stresses that solar power panels can be of high local value in under-developed regions, such as the MENA region.

"In the medium-term, the expansion of transmission capacities can give rise to exports into Europe of an easily managed supply of solar power coupled with secure and carbon dioxide-free power generation at its point of origin," Pitz-Paal said.

Julio Godoy,