Tag Archives: europe

Saharan Solar, Part 1: A Wild-Eyed Vision

American readers of this blog will have noted that the rush to build utility-scale solar facilities is not confined to the desert Southwest, but has become a global phenomenon, as exemplified by the Spanish experience.  As Abengoa and BrightSource have proven these facilities can be constructed in the developed world, there has been an emerging interest in pushing for them in the developing world, as well.

The Trans-Mediterranean Vision

Enter: DESERTEC.  A wild-eyed, and possibly insane, dream of well-meaning industrialists from Germany, it proposed to finance a series of utility-scale solar and wind facilities across the Maghreb, and in particular the northern reaches of the Sahara.  They would then construct sub-Mediterranean power connections to EU countries, providing them with “cheap”, “abundant”, “renewable” energy.  Take a look at the map below.

DESERTEC's initial plan.  Nothing like that upbeat, can-do German attitude.

DESERTEC’s initial plan. Nothing like that upbeat, can-do German attitude.

It was madness.  Conceived in 2009, when it appeared that the economic crisis might be behind us, it had a proposed price tag of €400 billion.  One more time, that’s FOUR HUNDRED BILLION EUROS (about $550 billion at 2009 exchange rates).  While that’s a staggering amount of money in any context, imagine it in terms of European economies: it’s equivalent to the entire GDP of Belgium.  Incidentally, it’s about the same amount as Europe spent on oil imports in 2012.

Initially this project it was conceived by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation, which emerged as a joint venture by the Club of Rome (a high-profile European think-tank that has inspired truly insane Illuminati comparisons) and Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan.  They then incorporated into the non-profit DESERTEC Foundation, which functions as both a think-tank and clearing-house, bringing together renewable energy research arms of Maghreb governments, such as Morocco’s CDER (Centre de Développement des Energies Renouvelables, possibly now defunct based on the ancient website), and University researchers from around Europe.

Dii's Investors, from www.Dii-eumena.com

Dii’s Investors, from www.Dii-eumena.com

Realizing that a non-profit alone couldn’t push through a project this big, the DESERTEC Foundation then participated in the forming of Dii (which ostensibly stands for the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative, though they rarely come out and say it), a limited liability German corporation which was to promote the project more directly through investment.  The companies involved in Dii are a veritable Who’s Who of European finance and energy, both private and public, including Deutsche Bank, Abengoa, First Solar, Terna (the Italian energy giant), the Spanish Red Eléctrica (which operates the national grid); hell even oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell got in on the action.

However, as the financial crisis persisted, investing in hyper-sized energy projects began to seem like a suspect idea.  Last year, the German tech giants Bosch and Siemens, who both have been instrumental in many solar projects both in Europe and the U.S., withdrew from Dii.

The other shoe finally dropped last week, when, in rather dramatic fashion, the DESERTEC Foundation withdrew from Dii altogether, citing “communication issues” (hat tip to Chris Clarke).  DESERTEC co-founder Thiemo Gropp cited Dii’s abandonment of the trans-Mediterranean transmisison element as the primary reason.  As to the loss of the huge corporate backing for DESERTEC, Gropp said that, “They are big names but they have produced small results.”  Pretty tough words to be hurling at some of biggest names in renewable energy in Europe.  Dii predictably  has fought back, essentially calling DESERTEC irrelevant.  But there is some validity to what Gropp says, as Dii has slowly backed down from the initial DESERTEC vision, as the economic situation has grown more and more perilous.  (I’ll have more on the dissolution of DESERTEC in a different post)

Morocco Goes It Alone (with a little help from their friends…)

European political wrangling aside, there is still a market for clean energy in developing countries, particularly with financial incentives such as Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) available.  That link goes to a pretty thorough explanation of CDM, but the basic principle, established in the Kyoto Protocol, is that rich countries can invest in “clean development” projects in poor countries, and earn tradable carbon credits which can be applied to carbon markets.  Since Europe has a functional carbon credit trading market, European governments and countries were quick to move in the face of DESERTEC intransigence.

A sign along the highway at the site for the Ouarzazate CSP complex.

A sign along the highway at the site for the Ouarzazate CSP complex.

MASEN, the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, was more than happy to facilitate.  Thus was born the Ouarzazate CSP Project, a 500MW parabolic trough solar plant to be constructed just outside the desert city of Ouarzazate, Morocco.  The project is funded by a dizzying array of entities, including the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the EU itself, the European Investment Bank (the EU’s central bank), the German government, and the French government.  The project is owned by ACWA Power, a Saudi water and energy conglomerate backed by Saudi government money.  It will be executed by Acciona and SENER, two Spanish civil engineering firms which have been heavily involved in European utility-scale solar and wind projects, as well as Grupo TSK, a Spanish photovoltaic developer.

Not intending to be flip, it’s a bit surprising that Morocco actually has a fairly rigorous set of environmental review laws in place.  That, combined with money flowing from the World Bank and African Development Bank, and relatively strict CDM regulations, mean that the Ouarzazate plant has had a relatively thorough environmental review process.  The complete set of documents can be viewed here, but I’ll spare you the trouble, and review the particulars of the Ouarzazate CSP facility in the next post in this series.  You can also check out the Ouarzazate CDM certification here.

It should be noted that the CDM has drawn lots of fire, for enabling rich countries to continue polluting, while getting carbon credits on the cheap.  While Germany is funding this 500MW worth of solar in Morocco, with a total price tag of $2.65 billion, it is also adding a whopping 5,300MW of new coal-fired power plants in 2013.  After Fukushima, a reactionary German public decided they weren’t in favor of nuclear power after all, and decided to close all 17 nuclear reactors in the nation, which represented 22.4% of demand at the time.  While German deployment of solar, particularly on rooftops, is admirable, it’s just not a very sunny place.  And since DESERTEC’s ambitious plans for shipping solar energy across the Mediterranean appear to be twisting in the wind, countries like Germany apparently have little choice but to add more dirty coal to their energy mix.

Part 2 of this series will be coming shortly, with details from my site visit to the Ouarzazate Solar facility, or at least the patch of Sahara which will one day become that facility…

A Fascinating Visit to Europe’s Biggest Utility-Scale Solar Research Facility: Plataforma Solar de Almería

It may have felt a bit like peering into the belly of the beast, but yesterday I had the rare opportunity to visit the Plataforma Solar de Almería (PSA), the Spanish government’s main utility-scale solar research facility, and the largest such facility in Europe.  Political concerns about the siting of utility-scale solar facilities aside, it was truly fascinating from a history of technology viewpoint to see the evolution of solar thermal technology from the early ’80s to today.

The earliest parabolic trough system on the planet, Accurex.  Much smaller than current technologies, it also covered more ground.  These are turned downward so the tubes don't break in the sun.

The earliest parabolic trough system on the planet, Accurex. Much smaller than current technologies, it also covered more ground. These are turned downward so the tubes don’t break in the sun.

Plataforma Solar de Almería

Screen grab from Google Maps of the Plataforma Solar de Almería. Clearly visible are several iterations of solar power tower, as well as parabolic trough and other technologies.

The Plataforma Solar de Almería is in southeastern Andalucía, Spain’s sun-drenched southermost autonomía, in an area called the Desierto de Tabernas, the only desert in Europe (Google Maps link).  According to worldclimate.com data, Almería, the local provincial capital (provinces in Spain are roughly analogous to counties in the U.S.) receives 8.8″ of rain per year, the very definition of a desert.  According to the PSA staff, the Tabernas desert has over 3000 hours of good solar insolation per year.  Considering that 4350 hours per year are at night, that’s a truly remarkable amount of sunlight for such relatively northern latitudes (at 37°N, it is roughly equivalent to San Francisco or the Central Plains in the U.S.- you gotta love the jet stream!).


SSPS-CRS, the world’s first solar power tower facility, constructed in 1981.

While facilities such as the early Luz plants in Israel (Luz went bankrupt and reformed itself as the now-industry-leading BrightSource Energy some years later) and the many Kramer Junction SEGSs in the Mojave Desert were innovators in concentrating solar thermal technology, they really owe their root technologies to the PSA.  The PSA built the world’s first concentrating solar power tower AND the world’s first parabolic trough designs in 1981, further refining both technolgies during the remainder of the 1980s.

Private enterprise has dominated such fields of technological innovation in the past few decades in the United States, but the PSA is fully funded by the Spanish Government, through its Centro de Investigaciones Energéticas, Medioambientales, y Tecnológicas (CIEMAT).  It also collaborates with government research bodies from other European countries, notably Germany.  Technologies are then leased or sold to private enterprises, through our tour guide was vague on fee structures and terms on such contracts.

Parts of the PSA seemed like a veritable solar graveyard, as old or abandoned technologies slowly bleach in the sun.

Parts of the PSA seemed like a veritable solar graveyard, as old or abandoned technologies slowly bleach in the sun.

On to the technology!  We got to view the world’s first solar power tower facility, the SSPS-CRS (the Small Solar Power System- Central Receiver System, weird that they gave it an English name and acronym), which amazingly was constructed over 30 years ago, in 1981.  When used to generate power, it employed  around 100 heliostats, each with an independent small PV cell to power their movement (check out the picture here), focusing their light on a 42m tall tower, creating a whopping 500kW of energy.  In the intervening years, with its pioneering technology long eclipes, the SSPS-CRS has been used for fascinating research in the splitting of water and hydrocarbon molecules to generate free hydrogren atoms, with potential applications in artificial photosynthesis.


The CESA-I, from 1983, a more refined solar power tower facility which resembles the modern technologies of today.

A few years later in 1983, they upgraded this technology significantly, with the CESA I (I’m a bit ashamed to say I did not catch what this acronym stands for), a 84m tower with 300 heliostats, capable of generating 1.2MW.  The CESA I bears much more resemblance to the towers which we know today, from plants in Spain, the United States, and elsewhere.  [For especially nerdy readers who also can read Spanish, here’s a picture of the interpretive sign for the power towers.]  Remarkably, it can generate temperatures of up to 1500°C (some 2700°F)!  Compared to Ivanpah’s meager sounding 1050°F, this sounds very impressive.  One would imagine that Ivanpah’s technology makes better use of the already high temperatures it has, such that temperatures hot enough to melt metal aren’t necessary (seriously, look at this picture).

Various iterations of the Stirling Engine, the oldest to the left and most recent to the right, a technology that has yet to prove commercially viable at utility-scale.

Various iterations of the Stirling Engine, the oldest to the left and most recent to the right, a technology that has yet to prove commercially viable at utility-scale.

Solar power tower wasn’t the only technology on display at the PSA, though it was certainly the most impressive.  Early incarnations of parabolic trough designs, much smaller (just a few feet across), and more heavily concentrated, so that almost no sunlight reached the ground, were scattered about the site (Spanish parabolic trough interpretive sign). The entire evolution of the Stirling engine was also visible, from a black dish to a curved mirror system.  And all around, like a graveyard of solar technologies, were decommissioned panels, troughs, cells, dishes, and every other possible incarnation of solar energy technology.

And so it was a day at the Plataforma Solar de Almería to forget about politics for a minute, and simply enjoy the fascinating path of technological development over the past 30 years.  The center focuses on technology, not siting, and thus is able to stay above the political fray.  And perhaps the visit also offered some hope- if humanity, when properly motivated, can devise such ingenious and seemingly miraculous ways to transform sunlight into energy, surely we can find appropriate places to site such technologies.  I left feeling optimistic, that utility-scale solar, if its siting and impacts are properly considered, could be a force for good in our future energy mix.

Through a bit of research serendipity, my trip to Andalucía this summer happened to coincide with a field studies program from Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and Global Technology and Development Program.  They had thirty enthusiastic undergraduate and graduate students, who were touring many of the facilities I was interested in visiting, and were gracious enough to let me tag along.  (Huge thanks are in order to Sharlissa Moore, a brilliant doctoral candidate at ASU who will be spending the next four months in Rabat, Morocco, doing field work for her dissertation on the DESERTEC project, amongst other solar intiatives in the MENA area).