A few years ago, the company Desertec made a splash with its ambitious plans to harvest gigawattsful of solar energy from the Sahara Desert and ship it off to solar-thirsty Europe. Well, Desertec crashed and burned but the dream didn’t die. London based Nur Energie has just filed a plan with the Tunisian government to export 4.5 gigawatts of solar power from the northeastern edge of the Sahara to Europe.
Will it work? Who knows! Adding to the intrigue, Nur Energie specializes in concentrating solar power, a technology that has had its detractors over the years.
The Nur Energie Sahara-to-Europe Solar Export Plan
Nur Energie announced the new solar plan on July 31, after it filed a request with the Tunisian Ministry of Energy, Mines and Renewable Energy to get the project off the drawing board.
According to Nur, 4.5 gigawatts is enough to supply more than 5 million typical European homes or more than 7 million EVs.
The idea is to build out a solar complex that was recently established in the area of Réjim Maâtoug in the Kébili Governorate, which is located in the Sahara Desert in the southwestern part of the country.
Nur Energie figures it has a win-win, providing an economic development opportunity for Tunisia while supplying the “growing European market for carbon-free electricity.” Tunisia will also have the option to reserve some of that carbon-free juice for itself.
It seems that Nur Energie has some factors working in its favor that were not in play when the ambitious Desertec project failed.
By 2013, Desertec’s supporters were convinced that Europe had sufficient renewable energy resources to provide for its own needs more economically.
However, that was then. The 2015 global* Paris Agreement on climate change was not in effect during Desertec’s heydey, and Nur Energie sees that as a significant motivator:
The project is part of the solution to Europe’s increasingly urgent challenges in the energy sector: meeting the Paris Climate Agreement emissions reduction targets, replacing obsolete fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels, and meeting the expected surge in electricity demand from electric vehicles.
Another factor that didn’t exist in Desertec’s time is the Malta-Sicily Interconnector, a 120-kilometer underground and submarine cable that connects Tunisia to Europe’s grid via the Italian grid. The cable wasn’t commissioned until 2015, long after Desertec bit the dust.
So, How Will It Work?
Nur Energie is counting on three high voltage DC underwater cables, beginning with that Malta-Sicily connection.
The second cable is moving through the planning stages:
The second cable system will link Tunisia to central Italy, with a shoring point North of Rome. This second cable system has been under development for several years and is currently being evaluated as a Project of Common Interest by the European Community.
The third cable seems a bit of a gamble. Still “under study,” it will bypass Italy and link directly to France.
Nevertheless, TuNur (the company formed by Nur Energie and Tunisian partners) CEO Kevin Sara is optimistic:
“The economics of the project are compelling: the site in the Sahara receives twice as much solar energy compared to sites in central Europe, thus, for the same investment, we can produce twice as much electricity. In a subsidy-free world, we will always be a low cost producer, even when transmission costs are factored in.”
A Big Test For Concentrating Solar Power
The concentrating solar power angle is where it gets really interesting. CSP plants are expensive to build and complex to maintain, compared to their photovoltaic cousins (CSP typically involves heating a liquid by concentrating solar thermal energy from a wide field of reflectors).
Some energy industry observers are still casting a stinkeye on the technology. Here’s a representative sample from Wired, reacting to a fire last year at the Ivanpah CSP plant in the US:
Ivanpah’s biggest problem, though, is hard economics. When the plant was just a proposal in 2007, the cost of electricity made using Ivanpah’s concentrated solar power was roughly the same as that from photovoltaic solar panels. Since then, the cost of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels has plummeted to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (compared to 15 to 20 cents for concentrated solar power) as materials have gotten cheaper…
However, CSP did have its early adopters including the US Department of Energy, which supported the Ivanpah project as part of a broader program to kickstart the domestic CSP industry.
In addition, CSP technology has matured since Desertec left the scene. The Energy Department, for example, is still funding next-generation research and the agency is still behind CSP as a key pathway to solar grid integration.
Also helping to make the case is Nur Energie’s existing roster of CSP plants.
The TuNur plan is to build a first stage consisting of a relatively small 250 megawatt CSP plant based on the familiar model of a tower surrounded by a field of heliostats (special mirrors), using molten salt as an energy carrier and storage medium. The electricity will get to Europe through the existing Malta-Sicily connection.
The second stage is much more ambitious:
…the project consists of a 2,250 MW CSP Tower plant with molten salt storage…with a dedicated 2,000 MW HVDC transmission line from the site, across Tunisia, through the Strait of Sicily, East of Sardinia and the Tyrrhenian Sea, landing North of Rome, Italy. Once laned in Italy, 9,000GWh per annum of low carbon dispatchable power will be transported to offtakers in Europe…
As for how well CSP equipment can perform in a harsh desert environment (think dust, wind, and more dust), CleanTechnica visited Abu Dhabi’s massive Shams 1 CSP plant last year and got a first-hand look at the sprawling facility, which seems to be humming along nicely thanks in part to a fleet of specialized trucks that keep the dust at bay.
*Earlier this summer US President (as of this writing) Donald J. Trump announced that the US will pull out of the Paris Agreement, joining only Syria and Nicaragua as the only non-participating nations.
Image (screenshot): via Nur Energie.
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