Jun 2009 04

The Desertec Foundation was created to serve as a hub for the DESERTEC concept which seeks to work towards creating a global alliance to ensure security of energy supplies. Their premise is simple, every year, each square kilometre of desert receives solar energy equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of oil. Increasingly it makes perfect sense to take advantage of the most plentiful supply of energy we have available to us. In fact as the map below shows, if less than 1% of the world’s deserts were covered with concentrating solar power plants we could easily produce as much electricity as the world currently uses. (Check the link to a video featuring designer Katherine Hamnett, apparently CSP might be good for the economy too!)


Moreover, 90% of the world’s population lives within 2700 km of a desert and it is certainly not the stuff of science-fiction to suggest (as Desertec does) that much of the EU, the Middle East and North Africa (EUMENA) area could be supplied with solar electricity produced in the desert. Especially when you consider that with High-Voltage Direct-Current (HDVC) transmission lines, electricity losses are only about 3% per 1000 km. Consequently if we include the small amount of AC/DC conversion losses) we can say that electricity may be transmitted from North Africa to the UK with less than 10% loss of power. This means that it is both feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity for distances of 3000 km or more!

kraftwerk_nevada fresnel_mirrors3

The key technology for harnessing the power of the sun is concentrating solar thermal power (CSTP). Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. The concentrated heat is then used as a heat source for a conventional power plant. A wide range of concentrating technologies exists; the most developed are the parabolic trough, the concentrating linear fresnel reflector, the Stirling dish and the solar power tower. Various techniques are used to track the Sun and focus light. In all of these systems a working fluid is heated by the concentrated sunlight, and is then used for power generation or energy storage. Moreover, solar heat that has been captured by a CSTP plant can be stored in melted salts (e.g. nitrates of sodium or potassium) or other medium so that electricity generation may continue at night or on cloudy days.

Desertec would also point out that CSP systems could also have additional benefits beyond the enhanced security of energy supplies including, the desalination of sea water using waste heat from CSP plants which is a valuable bonus in arid regions; the partially-shaded areas under the solar mirrors have many potential uses including horticulture; reduced risks of conflict over shortages of energy, water, food and usable land, increased collaboration amongst countries of EUMENA. Importantly, the DESERTEC ideas can be applied in many other parts of the world: countries like China and India could leapfrog the ‘dirty’ phase of development, making cuts in CO2 emissions whilst maintaining or increasing their energy supplies. Saudi Arabia could move directly from being oil-rich to being solar-rich and the USA could meet all its energy needs from its south-western states.


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