When we worked with Foresight last year on their scenarios for the future of Sustainable Energy Management and the Built Environment,  one of the scenarios, “Green Growth”, described a world where large scale international investment in renewables enabled a transition away from the fossil fuel economy. One of these large projects was the ‘solar desert’, in which solar energy was piped north to Europe from the scenario. Such a project is now being promoted by a German consortium headed by the world’s largest reinsurance company Munich Re. An article in Open Democracy looks at the reasons – and the obstacles.

The consortium first of all, which includes some of the largest names in Germany: Deutsche Bank, Siemens, the energy companies E.ON and RWE, and some solar specialists, as well as Munich Re. The reinsurer has been hit hard by pay-outs following disasters such as floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes, all exacerbated by climate change. The technology: solar energy heats water to create steam, which drivers turbines (this bit is as old as Watt and Newcomen), which creates energy, which is transported via high-power DC cables (DC has lower infrastructure costs and less power lost during transmission).

The scale is prodigious: more than 20,000 square km of desert covered by solar mirrors, to supply 15% of Europe’s energy needs and some of those of the African states which are providing the land.The technology – known as Concentrated Solar Power, or CSP – is proven (it’s been used in the USA and Spain) and the most expensive part of the project, which would cost an overall 400 billion euros, is the undersea cables across the Mediterranean. One German study says the long-run kilowatt-hour costs from the installation would be cheaper than any other energy source.

The barriers

But, but, but… the Open Democracy writer, Dennis Nottebaum has a list of potential barriers which remind us that technology systems are also social and political systems. The first is that it may need European support, and that France may not been keen on a s0urce of energy which threatens its nuclear energy exports. (I can see the politics here, but given that we seem already to be past the moment of peak oil I suspect that there will be enough energy demand for both energy supplies to prosper). Nonetheless, political differences might delay agreement on building the European grid.

The second barrier is in the politics of the North African and Arab states, many of which have large revenues from oil, and some of which are quite unstable. On the other hand there are already signs of some OPEC countries, notably Abu Dhabi, have already started investing oil surpluses against the decline in oil production.

There are also security issues – and governance issues (would Desertec by a private enterprise or a public agency? If public, it may breach EU competition rules, if private, it may need long term assurances about stable market conditions before committing to the huge investment) – so the political feasibility study will be at least as important as the technical and economic feasibility.

Tackling carbon reduction

As it happens, Desertec is one of the ten green initiatives picked by the Guardian/Manchester International Festival’s Manchester Report as having the greatest potential to tackle climate change. The others in the top ten were mostly about energy production or carbon capture, although one addressed population reduction. Advocates represented the ideas to a distinguished panel.

A second set of ten runners-up were also listed, and among these were a couple designed to change the rules of the game: new indicators for human development and a scheme to enable individuals to buy energy bonds (secure savings vehicle, proceeds to be invested in renewables). Initiatives which are designed to change the rules – as in effect the bonds are – are always under-represented in lists like this, but as we know, changing the rules of the game is a significant way to create change. [Update: I see from his Carbon Commentary blog that one of the judges, Chris Goodall agrees; it has an account of a local scheme to fund renewables in West Oxford].