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Turning Solar Fantasy Into Reality: Desertec Part Deux

solarthermalgeneric2We caught up with two of the biggest players in Desertec, Schott Solar CSP and Siemens AG (s SI), at the Intersolar solar conference this week and asked them what the game plan is for pulling off what — at a cost of $555 billion and with a goal of supplying 15 percent of Europe’s power — will be the most ambitious solar plan ever. Given that the founding members of Desertec were only announced Monday, it makes sense that there isn’t a solid implementation plan in place yet. But the members do have a first few steps in mind, such as forming task groups to look at how Desertec will tackle its first major hurdles: financing and permitting.

Part of the financing question is figuring out what the price per kilowatt hour will be for customers, and figuring out where to build the planned underwater transmission cables so that they will most effectively connect the power to those who will use it. “We want to avoid endless PPA discussions and build a platform for constructing power plants so that we know that as soon as they’re online, they have customers,” explained Christoph Fark, managing director of Schott Solar CSP.

Determining the number of potential customers and the price per kilowatt hour will help Desertec formulate a business plan that it can take to potential financial backers, according to Alfons Benziger, a spokesman for Siemens. “We know that because of the conditions in the desert you can produce solar electricity cheaply there, but we also have to transport it to consumers in Europe,” he said. “Once we figure out the kilowatt-per-hour cost, then we can address the financing and politics.”

The latter could be particularly difficult, given that the project is to span several nations in the Middle East and Africa to provide electricity to consumers in Europe. Still to be answered are questions like: Will any of the electricity stay in the countries producing it? How will the project deal with the differing permitting policies in place in different countries? And what happens if a local government decides to commandeer a plant?

One thing Desertec members don’t seem to be concerned about is the technical feasibility of the project. Fark points to concentrating solar power plants currently being built in the region — specifically in Morocco, Algeria and Egypt — as proof that the solar side of things should work just fine. “These are megawatt projects,” he said, noting that Desertec will be a gigawatt endevaor. “But it’s still a milestone that there are CSP projects already being constructed there.”

Benzinger points to several projects that he says demonstrate the capability of Siemens engineering and products to pull off Desertec. It’s currently working on one project in China that will transport 5,000 MW of power from a hydropower plant in the country’s interior to megacities on the coast over a distance of 1,400 km, and, according to Benzinger, the electrical loss is a low 3 percent. While that line is not traveling under water the way Desertec is supposed to, Benzinger points to several others that are. Although while individually small, Benzinger said that taken together, they prove that the Desertec project will not be a problem from the technological side of things.

Are they being overly confident? Quite possibly. There are a whole lot of other pieces that need to fall into place before we’ll know for sure. Nonetheless, there are apparently several companies clamoring to be a part of Desertec. “Of course there will be more members in the future but for the beginning stages, I think we have a good start with these 12,” said Benzinger. “And we need to decide what sorts of requirements we will have for new members.”

Fark concurred, adding, “When you look at all the industries you need to have represented in a project like this — finance, insurance, engineering, solar manufacturing, utilities — we have them all, and we have some of the best in each of those areas.”

Image courtesy of NREL.

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