Desertec: Solar Power from the Sahara to Germany

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald analyses German’s plans to pipe solar power from the Sahara Desert across the Mediterranean, and into its electricity grid. The project, known as Desertec, is on the concept level simple, but on the technical, economic, and political levels, fraught with potential risks. Desertec is an interesting foil to the Australian Federal Government’s Solar Flagships project, which sets to support solar power plants of similar size, but within its own national borders.

The first 20MW instalment of what is to be a 150MW concentrating solar power (CSP) plant is already under construction in a flat, desert section of Morocco. The Desertec project is essentially a pilot program to test the viability of large-scale solar power as a means to meet the energy needs of a future, fossil fuel-constrained world. Desertec is also an attempt by Germany–already the unquestioned world leader in installed solar PV, and well-recognised for its renewable energy targets and efforts–to test the waters to see if importing electricity in its raw form is a viable approach to securing its future energy security.

As a pilot project, Desertec bears certain similarities to the projects proposed under Australia’s own large-scale solar incentive scheme–Solar Flagships–which will eventually see through the development of up to 400MW of capacity between two plants–one CSP and one photovoltaic.

Despite the disparity in size, both the Desertec and Solar Flagships initiatives are looking to prove the technical practicality and economic viability of large-scale solar power plants, with hopes of leading the way to the broad-scale commercialisation of large-scale solar technologies. Both seek to take advantage of an abundant yet untapped energy resource. Both are heavily reliant on government subsidies to get off the ground.

One of the key differences between Australia and Germany’s large-scale solar ambitions with regard to these two projects is that Australia’s projects will be developed within the nation’s borders, making use of a national resource that is abundant and free. The power generated by the Flagship winners will be created and consumed domestically through an existing network. In contrast, in order for the power from Desertec to reach Germany, cables will have to be laid across the Moroccan desert and the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The power loss due to voltage drop will be significant, and relying on power piped in from a foreign country leaves Germany vulnerable to any political instability or post-colonial resentment that Morocco may undergo in the future.

The idea behind subsidising projects of this scale is to increase the certainty surrounding financing future projects of comparable size. The developers become ‘loss-leaders’, with government and non-governmental agencies copping the ‘loss’ in the interest of aiding the commercialisation of the technology. The Desertec project is a fascinating, almost sci-fi-esque endeavour that is being made into reality. It also puts Australia’s solar power potential into context–inspiring one to think that it is only a matter of time before Australia attains its (*ahem*) place in the sun as a solar world leader.

© 2012 Solar Choice Pty Ltd 

(Top image via SMH)

James Martin II