Frank Shuman had planned to return to the desert, but unfortunately he died in 1918. He’d had great far-ranging plans. He had sketched out designs, solar plants on a vast scale. He wanted to take 20,000 square miles of Sahara Desert to permanently provide the world the 270 million horsepower per year that equates to all the fuel burned in the world in 1909.
So, by our calculations, 270 million horsepower = 201,420,000,000 watts, and a Gigawatt is 1,000,000,000 watts, so, 201.4 Gigawatts is all the fuel burned in the world in 1909. The reader shouldn’t trust the maths, but it seems plausible. Anyway, about 20,000 square miles of desert was, in 1909-13 times, required to generate all the world’s energy.
In 1986, 73 years on, with the world’s energy demands now so much greater, and the dangers inherent in the world’s satisfaction of these demands so much greater, a German nuclear physicist, Gerhard Knies, calculated that an area of desert the size of Wales could power all of Europe. Wales is 8,015 square miles. This all seems roughly consistent, and suggests that, in the intervening 73 years, the conversion rate of sunlight to power hadn’t improved that much on Shuman’s 40%.
Knies had been alarmed in 1986 by the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, then part of the old Soviet Union. An explosion and a fire sent radioactive particles all over Europe. The long-term effects of this cloud are still being monitored and accounted.
Chernobyl was a Level 7 event in the way these things are rated, the only other Level 7 event has been Fukushima in Japan in 2011, which was followed shortly by Germany’s renouncing of nuclear power.
Amidst the fall-out from Chernobyl, Knies decided to calculate how much of the constant power reaching the Earth was required to power human civilisation. His research led him to the staggering realisation that in just six hours, the deserts of the world are hit with more energy from the Sun than human civilisation needs for a whole year.
It really is a no-brainer, that’s how much of no-brainer all this has been. Knies saw a way to leave dirty and dangerous fuels behind in our history, just a dangerous age – that Shuman might have nipped in the bud - that we could move beyond. Again we hear the same note of frustration echoing from down the years, from Henry George’s frustration at a world that failed to embrace a simple and obvious truth for its infinite betterment, Gerhard Knies asked whether we are really, as a species, so stupid as to not grasp this wonderful gift.
The full story is here.
For the next 20 years Knies became a solar evangelist, a man with a mission, and often it was another one of these lonely quests, banging on the doors of the world. The eventual fruit of his endeavour was the Desertec Foundation. Then, in 2009 an international consortium of companies formed Dii, the Desertec Industrial Initiative. Dii had some heavyweight companies on board, and the whole project started gaining some credibility in the face of many questions.
Desertec’s vision is for a network of solar and wind power plants right across the MENA area (Middle East and North Africa) to provide abundant electrical energy to the whole area. Electrical power can be transmitted over long distances by direct current transmission, which loses only about 3% of the power every 1000km, and nowhere on Earth is more than 3000km from a desert.
Desertec urge the integration of Europe’s renewable energy resources with new smart grid technology, which enables two-way exchange. Fukushima certainly put more wind in Desertec’s sails, along with repeated clear warnings that the world is bound for irreversible climate change without urgent and immediate carbon emission reduction. It’s definitely time for bold steps.
This is one of Desertec’s graphics:
The Desertec concept is of a global mix of renewables and this is a natural energy map of Europe, showing the diverse strands of energy harvesting that could be linked together to provide a robust system of supply to the whole EUMENA area (Europe, Middle East, North Africa.)
This graphic doesn’t include the virtually unlimited potential of kite power, and its potential harvest could be anywhere, a kite symbol could appear anywhere on this map. It also doesn’t include huge wave and tidal potential, about which more later. The map shows two kinds of solar power, and Desertec are principally about CSP, Concentrated Solar Power.
In the 2nd Century, Lucian wrote that Archimedes had set fire to Roman ships during the Siege of Syracuse, using what a later historian, Anthmius, called burning glasses, focusing the rays of the sun onto the ships. Mythbusters busted it, though a Greek engineer did an experiment in the 1960s with the help of sailors of the Greek Navy holding polished bronze shields, which produced some conflagration. And in the 15-16th century, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary ideas was the use of concave mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy to heat water; and also as a death ray, though that’s not the idea we wish to propagate.
The kind of thing that Archimedes was imagined doing is sort of what Concentrated Solar Power is about, which uses hundreds of parabolic mirrors to concentrate the rays of the sun to a single point, creating vast temperatures to superheat water, or whatever working liquid, to create steam to drive turbines. Tremendous heat can be stored in molten salt and keeps the plant producing electricity 24 hours a day. It’s essentially simple technology.
There is also widespread use of the kind of solar troughs, descendants of Shuman’s troughs, that superpower funds were set to pour into in 1913.
This explains further the basic tech.
There have been several large CSP units working in Spain and the USA for some time, and it looks like this:
Desertec have had their ups and downs, some partners have pulled out, though new ones have joined. It was worrying to hear that the Desertec Foundation have split from Desertec Industrial Initiative, there were apparently communications difficulties between the groups about the focus and emphases of development. There have been some criticisms. The whole idea has always had huge problems to surmount, it’s a very problematic world.
[Desertec] is not viable in its original form because it is too expensive and utopian.
So said Peter Droege, president of Eurosolar, an industry association. They are the European Association for Renewable Energy
We see he has a point, certainly, and we’re certainly not criticising his observation, but we were struck by the use of utopian in a negative sense. Surely an ideal society is what we’d definitely choose if there was one to be had. Is Utopia too much to ask? Have we had it knocked out of us to stop wanting that? Stop even imagining it. Yes, it is utopian. Utopia is there to be had, if we could find a way to get there.
The hard-headed and all-pervasive logic of capital and militarism and addiction to oil has become a straightjacket on our imagination and our courage. Utopia is surely what we want. It certainly would be very expensive to go out now and totally fulfill the Desertec vision, but it would be a once-and-for-all investment, and then energy would be free-ish, certainly not a security worry of any kind. 400 billion, whatever . . . Such sums will be spent, and they’ll be spent on false security. 400 billion is cheap for this, the EU should just fund it, chuck the entire EU fund at it, and build a direct current smart grid. The benefits would be incalculable, utopic, even eutopic, it’s still hard to resist a pun.
Anyway, Desertech have created plenty of interest in what they’re saying, and hopefully these miscommunications are straws in the wind as there is so much abundance, so much space to move into.
This is a little video from the Desertech Foundation:
There’s surely too much momentum now, Shuman and Kneis’s revolution has begun. It has started happening at scale and it will spread, into empty space. What is never going away is the blinding fact that six hours sunlight falling on the world’s deserts is enough to provide all the power the world needs, and surely that idea is eventually irresistible.
Continuing technical development will increase its reach, make it much less water-thirsty, make cheaper, lighter, maybe sand-resistant mirrors. (Among many others, a company called Skyfuel, coming up shortly, have some advancement in the area of materials.)
The idea should run away, maybe it’ll be something that any villagers anywhere can do, make their own CSP plants, cheaply, maybe scaled-down versions, and without expensive industrial mirrors but something much less efficient, from local materials, but efficient enough to generate useful wattage. Maybe 3-D printing could have a lot to do with doing that.
Here’s the wikihow article on making mirrors.
There is the idea of micro-CSP, a term coined by a company in Hawaii called Sopogy who make small units which come in a flat pack. And here’s an excellent 2½ minutes on YouTube, explaining how the technology works.
Sopogy are building a small plant to power 500 homes, Keahole Solar Power in Hawaii.
The company says:
Once the first phase of the project is completed, Keahole Solar Power will produce electricity for over 100 homes. The one-megawatt solar farm will be capable of powering 500 homes and offsetting over two million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
See more here:
A tiny little plant, supplying just 500 homes (1 MW) offsetting two million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, two million tonnes! It’s really hard to visualise two million tonnes of carbon, but these are the sums given here.
And then we read this, to remind us that you have to be careful what you read always. Sopogy were using projections that violated the second law of thermodynamics, which is a problem. Still, Micro-CSP still sounds a worthwhile phrase.
We mentioned a company called Skyfuel, and there’s a beautiful picture we can get in here:
This is their Skytrough, and they’ve developed a special mirror film, ReflecTechPLUS mirror film, that’s cheap, unbreakable and lightweight and they’ve made this really light and simple kit for a SkyTrough to be shipped and assembled, light enough to be carried about, and suitable for generating electrical power or produce desalinated water, as single units or banked together.
There are many groups active in all these areas and improvements in all these technologies are exploding and this is just one example.
Back to the vast and abundant desert, this is an image from Morocco's Ouarzazate project:
. . . and there’s plenty of desert in this picture that’s doing nothing except being shone upon.
We had read about a Dii plan for a 12 square kilometre 500 MegaWatts (½ GigaWatt) solar farm close to Ouarzazate in the Moroccan Sahara. (So, 42 MW per Km2.) This was to be a reference project, to demonstrate how such plants could be reproduced anywhere right across the region.
Kitegen would eventually be looking to get 18 GigaWatts out of 12 km2. CSP and Kitegen could be happily combined, of course. Indeed, a CSP array would fit neatly inside a Carousel.
Morocco is advancing its solar projects with the help of Spanish engineers, who are the technical leaders in CSP. It’s there to do anywhere in any empty space hereabouts, the Sun spreads its favours evenly on every grain of sand. Morocco have got a lot of empty desert.
Morocco plans to go from 97% dependency on energy imports to 42% self-dependence on renewable energy by 2020, which would represent a massive leap and a compelling example; but they’re bombarded by energy and should be going for 200% self-dependence straightaway and export electricity, and then 300%.
And it's great to be able to update on Ouarzazate.
Spain has been the world leader in CSP. In 2007, the world’s first commercial concentrated solar power tower, PS10, was built near Seville, producing a modest 11 MW. It cost €35 million to build and produces revenue of €6.3 million a year. After six years, it’s money for sitting about and doing a bit of mirror cleaning.
Andasol 1 came in 2009, Europe’s first commercial parabolic trough park, and other such plants and towers have followed. All the money has run away in Spain as everywhere, and this is sadly slowing the development of the industry here and around the world and the technical advances that are there to be made.
But by the end of 2012, Spain had built over 2,000 MW (2 GW) of CSP, with 4½ GW planned. It’s a very good start. Spain are also heavily into photovoltaics, more of which later.
Worldwide, about 17 GW of CSP harvesting is under development, led by the USA, Spain and China, and at least ten other countries are building CSP plants. All of this should have happened decades ago, starting from Maadi.
The USA has a handful of solar thermal sites, Nevada Solar One has been online since 2007. SEGS in California was the world’s largest, with three sites in the Mojave Desert producing 354 MW (0.35GW). In February, 2014, Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in California, in the middle of Death Valley, was completed, trumping that with 392 MW (0.4GW).
Ivanpah was built by Bright Source Energy.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, ex-Governor of California, said at the opening:
There are some people that look out in the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness. I see miles and miles of a gold mine.
But here’s an article that says rather unkindly that Ivanpah is already irrelevant. The author’s point, though, is in the context of the dramatic collapse in price of photovoltaic installation. And, of course, hurrah to that as well, another form of natural energy collection is becoming so good that it’s making Ivanpah - which is making 392 MW out of land that wasn’t doing anything before - irrelevant. If Ivanpah is irrelevant, then surely hydrocarbons and nuclear are. Stranded assets?