Clean Power

Published on May 14th, 2014 | by Dr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz


Solar Energy — Desert Projects & Transmission Costs

May 14th, 2014 by  

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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About the Author

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.

  • globi

    The unemployed of the young people alone costs €153 billion per year (in the EU):
    If EU-countries were interested in renewable energies €153 billion would be enough to install well over 100 GW of PV in Europe every year and this effort would not only reduce Europe’s fossil fuel dependence, but also reduce the unemployment rate tremendously.
    Luckily, installation of renewable energies and weatherization of existing homes cannot be outsourced to cheap labor countries.

    On the other hand North African countries are still primarily depending on fossil fuels. Hence, they should simply invest in renewable energies to reduce their enormous fossil-fuel dependence in any case (regardless whether they or the EU intend to build additional transmission lines between the two continents).

    Unfortunately, the Desertec-concept has mostly benefited the fossil fuel industry in Europe, as it is a great excuse to not invest in renewable energies in Europe.

    The CEO of the largest coal power plant operator liked to say: “Installing solar panels in Germany is like growing pineapple in Alaska.”

    • JamesWimberley

      Iceland used to grow bananas (link) in greenhouses heated with geothermal energy. That stopped when import tariffs were removed. But when shipping has to pay its environmental costs, we may see the bananas again.

  • Matt

    The problem with long north/south distribution are a couple
    1) You don’t get time of day shifting. We already see that distributed solar is cutting the peak out of the day when the sun is up.
    2) With transmission loses over that distance and then selling into wholesale market, you need an advantage.
    – – Solar thermal with salt would let them time shift (but cost more) cheap PV does not.

    So I think that they will do better to start by addressing the local and regional power needs first. Even in 5 years we will have a better picture of how the NRG market is shaking out in Europe. They may find that there is a market for the power in winter, but what to do with all the extra power in summer?

    • globi

      Europe requires about 4000 TWh of electricity or about 20’000 TWh of primary energy and Europe installs about 10 GW of PV per year:

      10 GW corresponds to about 15 TWh or about 0.1% of the primary energy demand. Europeans will in 5 years from still mostly burn imported natural gas to shower in the summer. (As PV will unfortunately still be a drop in the European energy bucket. Also, keep in mind that PV has already been partially been killed in Spain, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, France…?).

      • Bob_Wallace

        ” keep in mind that PV has already been partially been killed in Spain, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, France…?).”

        Excuse me? Fossil fuels are fighting back, but “killed” is a very strong word.

        BTW, it’s not how much solar Europe will be using in 5 years. It’s now much solar and wind Europe will be using 5 years from now, then 10 years from now, then 20 years from now and then in 40 years from now.

        • globi

          That’s why I said partially killed.
          Let’s face it: Even though PV costs have dropped dramatically and are not having an influence on raising electricity let alone living costs (on the contrary) installation rates in some countries have been reduced significantly.
          It’s ironic on one hand the EU talks about reducing its dependence on Russia and reducing CO2-emissions and on the other hand its cracking down on PV-installations (e.g. PV-taxes/charge-fees in Spain, Germany, Czech Republic etc.)

          Hopefully this will change again, but unfortunately many policy makers in the EU-countries are certainly working very hard to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

  • JamesWimberley

    The technology originally envisaged by Desertec was thermal solar, which can be readily combined with hot salt storage to give as many hours of reliable output a day as you need. The scheme fell apart when pv costs fell much faster than for thermal solar, Desert pv plants still leave you with storage costs and North Africa has no advantage there. The countries are all developing pv solar for their own needs. There is already an interconnector under the Straits of Gibraltar which could be expanded when the capacity is needed.

  • Offgridmanpolktn

    Dr Lenz,
    In case you should check back here I wanted to thank you for your perspective and especially for the free access to your novels. As a life long lover of reading and especially science fiction that usually goes through a book every day or two any discounts on new material are much appreciated. Looking forward to reading your stories and wishing you a great day.

    • Karl-Friedrich Lenz

      Thank you very much for kindly reading my books.

  • Omega Centauri

    The other issue, which does require transmission is to better spread out the generation profile, both during the day, and across seasons. Its hard to imagine storage ever getting cheap enough to cover seasonal variation at higher lattitudes.

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