In 1986, a surge in voltage during the security check at the Chernobyl reactor caused a catastrophic explosion. Thirty-one people died on the spot, even more died due to the consequences of the release. Along with the Fukushima accident in 2011, this is one of the two worst nuclear accidents, which are marked by a maximum severity level of 7. Support for nuclear power has fallen sharply around the world precisely because of these events.
But Gerhard Nies, the particle physicist from Germany, decided to ask a simple question. Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas have come a long way before becoming our energy source, and partly due to our energy supply to the sun. Plants and animals buried under the earth, for thousands of years turned into this fossil fuel. Radioactive uranium, which feeds nuclear power plants, has also become a by-product of nuclear fusion in the stars. Will not it be cheaper, simpler and cleaner to get energy from the sun directly?
Nisus made a simple calculation and found out that in six hours the world's deserts receive more solar energy than the entire human race consumes for the year. The energy needs of the world can be met by covering only 1.2% of the Sahara desert with solar batteries. Nis probably did not even think about carbon dioxide emissions – because once fossil fuels would end one day – but climate change fueled the motivation to engage in such a project. And, of course, all this looks very simple: Nisus himself was amazed, are we really so stupid as to pretend that they have not come to this yet?
Of course, it's difficult to persuade people to invest in such a grandiose and ambitious scheme – and which requires huge investments that do not promise any serious profit – but Desertec's initiative was a real attempt to demonstrate the concept's working capacity.
The plan was to place solar panels in the Sahara that would provide most of the facilities in the Middle East and in North Africa, and will also provide energy exports worth $ 60 billion, which will satisfy 15% of the electricity demand in Europe. Meanwhile, Europeans – importing the energy of the desert – could save up to 30 euros per MWh on electricity bills. All will win in the long run.
The Desertec project began to develop in 2009 and soon acquired a number of industry partners, including EON, Deutsche Bank and Siemens. Their investments were necessary, since the project was estimated at 400 billion euros – although in a few years of work, it would already pay for itself. However, the project was stalled, and by 2014, only three of the seventeen original partners of the industry remained.
What happened to Desertec? This is due to two sets of factors. First, these are problems that have for many years pursued the transition to renewable energy sources. Secondly, these are unique geopolitical and logistical problems of solar batteries in the Sahara. Both deserve attention.
Reduction of gaps
The first is the common problems of renewable energy. The Desertec plan implied the creation of a centralized power station that would distribute electricity to three continents, and transferring this electricity to such long distances could be a problem.
The plan was to use high-voltage DC transmission lines – instead of AC lines, to which we are accustomed . At great distances, energy loss can be as low as 3% per 1000 km, which is much less than in the case of alternating current. But nothing of this magnitude was built before; The biggest chain is in Brazil, it's the line of Rio Madeira, which transmits 6.3 GW to 2,400 kilometers. To Desertec was successful, from the Sahara to Europe it is necessary to transfer 30 GW of energy over a distance of more than 3000 kilometers. And yet, it can be quite realistic on the news that in July 2016 China started financing a high-voltage DC transmission line that will transmit 12 GW to 3000 km.
And it's not just about transferring energy. What to do when the sun is not in the sky? But this is a serious problem for renewable energy sources.
Energy storage can be part of the solution, but not yet developed enough. In the global repository, hydroelectricity is currently dominated by pumping. This simple technique defines 99% of the world's storage, but with global storage of 127 GW, it is still less than 1% of the total power used by the world. Researchers in the energy industry are talking about a hypothetical "European supernet", which will allow the transfer of power from regions of excess production to regions of excess consumption. The same is happening within countries to ensure a continuous supply of electricity, but this is largely due to the fact that the production of fossil fuel energy can be increased or decreased.
And there are precedents for such a system: France and the UK are connected by a power line in 2 GW. High-voltage direct current allows to transfer energy in both directions, depending on demand; usually the British import French electricity, but not always. The fjords of Norway allow producing 98% of its electricity in hydroelectric power stations; the winds in Denmark make it possible to produce 50% of own electricity from renewable sources of energy; Cables coming through Scandinavia guarantee that everyone can get energy if the wind blows or the sun shines. Studies have shown that the Mediterranean region with an energy source like Desertec can provide 80% of its own energy needs through solar alone, without worrying about interruptions.
Expect the unexpected
While people were considering a project that could focus the world's energy supply in Libya and Algeria, more specific problems arose – civil war in Libya and political instability in the Sahara. Add to this the fact that the project was planned to be completed only by 2050, and industrial partners would have to be convinced only by promises of short-term gains.
There is a more subtle political problem of the rights to natural resources.
As with many courageous, futuristic projects, little government intervention can prevent a project like Desertec. Countries have benefited from the export of oil or coal; Can sunlight play a similar role once? At first glance, this is another bonus in the Desertec scheme; the poor countries of Africa would be extremely valuable by exporting energy to the world, while providing their own needs. But in practice, another imperialist exploitation will begin. This is only a new form of exploitation of resources, and history remembers a lot of sad stories on this topic.
There is another reason for stopping the development of Desertec.
The project supported concentrated solar energy in which parabolic mirrors concentrated sunlight that boiled water that set in motion wind turbines. This technology allowed to attract to the project Siemens. The problem is that when Desertec began to develop, the price of solar batteries began to fall precipitously. From 2009 to 2014, the cost of photovoltaic cells fell by 78% and continues to fall. In just five years, photovoltaic cells went down five times. Therefore, Siemens left the project.
Desertec continues to live in small forms; The construction of power stations in Morocco is continuing, which will allow meeting the local demand for energy in the country. Perhaps, it is worth starting with this: to increase own production in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. In the end, this is not the first and not the last project, which promised to provide the world with boundless energy and which has reached a deadlock; historians remember the "Atlantropus" – a plan to block the Strait of Gibraltar and use it for hydropower, which was of great interest in the 1920s.
Still, the prospect remains too tempting. The solar energy that could be extracted in the world's deserts is just one of the few possible ways to tap renewable energy sources to meet the needs of people on a large scale. One day we will be much more effective in using what the sun gives us. We will have to.