Solar, Not Nuclear
Responding to our news item Close Old Nuclear Power Plants Now?, Gerry Wolff has the inside track on clean power from deserts.
Current concerns about energy supplies and the need to cut emissions of CO2, have led some people to suppose that it will be necessary to build new nuclear power stations in Europe. If there really was no alternative, then there might conceivably be a case for nuclear power, despite the many serious problems that are associated with it (see www.mng.org.uk/green_house/no_nukes.htm).But there are more than enough good alternatives which, with the right political and financial impetus, can be brought on stream on relatively short timescales. In particular, there is a simple mature technology that can deliver huge amounts of clean energy without any of the headaches of nuclear power.
I refer to 'concentrating solar power' (CSP), the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. With CSP - which is very different from the better-known photovoltaic 'solar panels' - it is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days. It is also possible to use gas as a stop-gap source of heat when there is not enough sun.
parabolic trough CSP plant - Nevada desert
CSP works best in hot deserts and, of course, there are not many of these in Europe! But it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over very long distances using highly-efficient 'HVDC' transmission lines. With transmission losses at about 3% per 1000 km, solar electricity may, for example, be transmitted from North Africa to Brussels with less than 10% loss of power. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by the wind energy company Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe. In the 'TRANS-CSP' report commissioned by the German government, it is estimated that CSP electricity, imported from North Africa and the Middle East, could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission.
Every year, each square kilometre of desert receives solar energy equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of oil. Multiplying by the area of deserts world-wide, this is nearly a thousand times the entire current energy consumption of the world. The cost of collecting solar thermal energy equivalent to one barrel of oil is about US$50 right now (already less than the current world price of oil) and is likely to come down to around US$20 in future.
These ideas have been developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC), a group of scientists, engineers and politicians developing a collaboration amongst countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (EUMENA) to take advantage of the truly enormous quantities of energy falling as sunlight on hot deserts — and wind energy in those regions too.
TREC is an initiative of the global think tank, the Club of Rome, it is strongly supported by the CoR President, Prince Hassan of Jordan, and it works in close collaboration with the team that produced the TRANS-CSP report. The TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded from www.trec-uk.org.uk.
[Copyright Gerry Wolff 2007]