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ENERGY: African Sun may Light up European Homes

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Jul 29 2009 (IPS) - Twelve German companies have drawn up ambitious plans to meet at least 15 percent of the European electricity demand by 2020 from solar thermal power plants installed in the North African Maghreb region.

The companies – including Germany's largest private bank Deutsche Bank, the electronic giant Siemens, the leading insurance company Muenchener Rueck, and the biggest German power companies E.on and RWE – are planning to invest some 400 billion euros (560 billion dollars) in installation, and on modifying the European electricity grid to receive electricity across the Mediterranean Sea.

The solar thermal power plants (STPPs) would also feed North African energy demands. The plan has been drawn up following studies by the Club of Rome, an independent development group, and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), a state-owned research institute.

"We want to launch an economic joint venture and lay concrete plans for Desertec in the next two to three years," Torsten Jeworrek, director of Muenchener Rueck told IPS.

"Clean solar energy is exactly the future of Siemens," Peter Loescher, CEO of Siemens, said at a press conference in Munich last month. "Our company, and the whole economy, will be greener after the (present economic) crisis." Loescher said Siemens will "participate intensively" in Desertec.

"Environmental catastrophes provoked by climate change constitute in the long term a problem larger than the present financial crisis," Jeworrek told IPS. "Our own statistics over the last decades show that insurance claims caused by environmental catastrophes and climate change are growing three to four percent per year."

According to estimates by German energy experts, solar electricity generated in North Africa could cost about 0.06 euros per kilowatt-hour (kWh). The production cost from other sources at present ranges between 0.025 and 0.05 euros.

"Practically all experts agree that electricity prices will rise in the coming years," Bernd Schuessler from the German energy journal Photon told IPS.

According to estimates by DLR and the Club of Rome, the Desertec investment of 400 billion euros can bring an installed capacity of 100 gigawatts by 2050.

By comparison, the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant under construction in Finland, with an installed capacity of 1.6 gigawatts, will cost 5 billion euros. And this does not include the cost of managing radioactive waste or of handling other technical difficulties at the plant.

The estimated cost for the STPPs in the Maghreb include installation of high- performance power lines through the Mediterranean Sea to transport electricity to Europe. According to the DLR, "over distances above about 500 to 600 km, underground power cables only cost about 10 to 20 percent more than overhead power lines…(and) do not emit any electromagnetic radiation."

Several environmental activists have welcomed Desertec. "This project is one of the most intelligent answers to the global environmental and economic problems of our time," Andree Boehling, energy expert at Greenpeace, told IPS.

"It seems as though an important fraction of the German business class has realised that it is about time to expand the use of renewable energy resources and to say farewell to fossil fuels and to nuclear power plants."

German minister for the environment Sigmar Gabriel says the project is an "excellent idea, both as part of the European energy policy as well as a development programme for the North African countries."

Solar thermal power plants, which have been in use commercially since 1985, use mirrors and magnifying lenses to concentrate solar energy to raise steam to feed turbines and generate electricity.

According to a report by the Club of Rome, "an interesting by-product that can be a great benefit to the local population in desert regions is that waste heat from the power-generation process can be used to desalinate seawater.

"If more solar energy is collected than is actually needed to fulfil each day's needs, the surplus energy can be stored in tanks of molten salt and then be used to power the steam turbines during the night," the report adds.

"In order to ensure uninterrupted service during overcast periods or contrary weather, the turbines can also be powered by natural gas."

Franz Trieb of DLR told IPS that the project would benefit the Maghreb countries as well as Europe. "It would not be a new energy colonisation of the Arab region," he said. "Instead, the project would aim at supporting the North African states and the Middle East to meet their growing energy demand through their own renewable resources."

Jeworrek, of Muenchener Rueck, also spoke of "enormous economic opportunities for North Africa." He said that the project had received "only positive signals from the Maghreb countries."

But Desertec has its critics too. German parliamentarian Hermann Scheer, chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy and of the International Parliamentary Forum on Renewable Energies, dismissed Desertec as "another superfluous giant generator." Scheer called instead for support for smaller sun and wind-driven power plants.

"The decisive factor in the economics of renewable energy is not the ratio between the electricity generated and the intensity of the source, but between the electricity output and the investment," Scheer told IPS. "In this ratio, a decentralised network of small sun and wind-driven generators is more efficient than a larger project because of its lower costs for the transport of electricity."

Scheer said that the numerous small sun-driven power plants already installed in Germany "can compete with the sun energy from the Sahara. We in Germany are about to achieve even lower prices, through the further installation of solar panels on roofs and facades of buildings all over the country."

Lars Josefsson, CEO of Vatenfall, one of Europe's leading energy companies, and advisor on climate change to the UN and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also considers the project "excessively expensive".

The transport costs of electricity from the Maghreb region to Europe would be very high," he said at a press conference. "To me, the project is not feasible."

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