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Solar Energy — Desert Projects & Transmission Costs

Originally published on Lenz Blog.

CleanTechnica just published an interview with Sunpower CEO Tom Werner. He makes some points interesting when discussing energy from the desert. From the interview:

“Large scale PV can be distributed generation and it doesn’t have to be really big, it can be done near the point of demand,” Werner says. “And that gives it better economics. If you look at transmission adjusted cost of PV, it looks like a great generation option.”

All things equal, you want to avoid transmission costs. That’s one of the advantages of solar. You can’t put a nuclear or coal plant, a dam or a wind park in people’s backyard. You can put solar panels everywhere the sun shines.

That’s also the strongest argument against the energy from the desert projects. Why go to some faraway desert when you can generate the electricity right where you need it?

There are several possible answers to this.

One is pointing to better solar resources in Northern Africa compared to Germany. Those give you better capacity factors. If that advantage is larger than the extra costs from power lines, it makes sense to put the solar panels where the sun shines more.

Another is the issue of space. Solar panels need much space at large scale. This is cheaper in the desert. And while I have nothing at all against distributed solar, I think global warming requires deploying everywhere possible at full speed.

And the third answer would be to shift demand. Do some bitcoin mining in the desert. Locate some aluminum and silicon plants right next to the solar projects. While it is true that it is better to have no distribution costs, that can achieved by either moving the solar panels to the existing demand centers or by moving the demand into the desert.

Anyway, to go back to Werner’s point, when discussing cost of solar power, one needs to adjust for the transmission cost saved, if the energy is generated right where it is needed.


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is a professor of German and European Law at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, blogging since 2003 at Lenz Blog. A free PDF file of his global warming science fiction novel "Great News" is available here.


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