The $550 billion solar project in North Africa: A reality check

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Last week, a heavy hitting consortium of companies unveiled plans for a $550 billion solar farm to be built in the sunblasted North African desert. The plan called for the biggest ever deployment of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), a massive effort that could supply 15 percent of Europe's power.

CSP entails using mirrors to redirect the sun's rays to heat up water or oil with a concentrated heat beam. Ideally, this will also power large-scale desalination plants to green North Africa and stimulate agriculture. I spoke to Travis Bradford, a noted expert on solar energy and the executive director of the Prometheus Institute, about the project. Here's a quick-take Q&A:
Q: Travis, thanks for chatting. What do you think of the DESERTEC project announcements?

A: It's really interesting. Obviously, it's an enormous plan and the largest installation of CSP to date. And I am excited they are planning such a huge effort. It's a big step forward.

Q: What are some of the downsides to this plan?

A: The benefits of this plan are obvious but there are some other things to consider. For starters, this may not be the cheapest way to generate solar power. Prices on photovoltaic solar power systems are coming down much faster than prices on CSP systems. That's because PV follows Moore's Law while glass and steel used in CSP installations does not. So it might not be the most cost-effective way to generate power. Prices of PV panels have dropped by 50 percent in the past year-and-a-half. CSP systems have not dropped by nearly that much.

Q: But I thought that CSP can continue to generate power after the sun goes down and that was one of the big benefits compared to PV, which would need really expensive battery banks to store the power.

A: That's true but this project assumes that storage technologies to be paired with PV arrays won't get better. I can assure that they are getting better and will get much better because there is so much market demand for photovoltaics.

Q: How hard is it to move power from North Africa to Europe?

A: The technology works and its here now. Undersea power transmission is not terribly hard to do. But where the problem might be is that, with this plan, the power lines will only be full and used half of the time. That will mean that the actual cost of transmitting the power is much higher because the total cost of building the wires will need to be covered by transmission during only those limited hours. Of course, if better storage technologies come into play, then that could allow them to smooth out the transmission of power into a 24-hour cycle. Another alternative could be to pair wind farms with solar installations. Wind farms tend to do best at night when the wind blows. It's a nice complement for solar farm installations.

Q: $550 billion is a lot of money. Can they raise it?

A: That's a good question. There is a lot of capital in the world but this is a particularly big project. The large companies -- Deutsche Bank, E.on, Munich Re, Siemens -- involved in the project appear to be very serious about it. And this is a topic that has been researched very well. But it is a competitive market for capital right now, even in the global renewables space. This is a great project but they still have a long ways to go before it will really take flight.
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