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Energy COOL: A Powerful Renewable Vision (reprise)

December 9th, 2008 · No Comments

Since diving into the deep end when it comes to energy issues, almost every day sees new fascinating concepts, approaches, and technologies. Fascinating … exciting … even hope inspiring at times. And, as well, as the passion builds, so many of these are truly Energy COOL.

One of the most powerful images for a renewable energy future, a burning hot one we might suggest, is TREC, which is a grand vision for connecting solar power in North Africa, wind power from the Eastern Mediterranean to the North Sea, bio-mass, and hydropower with a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) system of power lines to provide assured renewable electricity for the Mediterranean basin and Europe.

This concept, which has seemed ever so Renewable Energy COOL to me from the first time I encountered it, looks to be moving down a path from fantastic innovative concept to potential reality as Europe is heading toward an initial investment of $10 billion dollars in DESERTEC.

According to a good Guardian article,

Europe is considering plans to spend more than £5bn on a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East.

More than a hundred of the generators, each fitted with thousands of huge mirrors, would generate electricity to be transmitted by undersea cable to Europe and then distributed across the continent to European Union member nations, including Britain.

Reality is that that Guardian article is a year old and that full investment hasn’t occurred. But, many of the pieces are moving forward,

Construction of new concentrating solar thermal power plants has already begun in Spain and the USA (Andasol 1 & 2, Solar Tres, PS10, Nevada Solar One). Projects are underway in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco and further plants are planned in Jordan and Libya. Morocco is implementing a feed-in law to support wind power in particular. In the EU, discussions are in progress concerning the construction of an HVDC-Supergrid across Europe (a Euro-Supergrid) and plans for offshore wind farms in Northern Europe, with an associated HVDC Supergrid, are taking shape. The Union for the Mediterranean plans to realize a Mediterranean Solar Plan and could provide the framework for implementing DESERTEC in EU-MENA

A few months ago, at the Clinton Global Initiative, Al Gore made comments pointing to something like TREC:

We need in this country today a unified national transmission grid, a smart grid with long-distance, low-loss transmission capacity, to take the energy from the places where the sun falls and the wind blows to the places where the people live.

And we need it globally. In Europe. In Africa, northern Africa particularly. Let’s start with Darfur. Darfur has more sunlight falling on it reliably than almost any other place. There’s a belt across that part of Africa into the Middle East. We ought to build solar electric plants there and connect them with a super grid that goes across the straits of Gibraltar and up through the Balkans and across the Mediterranean and replaces coal and oil.

One of the benefits of this, the HVDC, is to help cover the intermittency challenges of, for example, wind power by linking with very low transmission losses wind in the Mediterranean to North Sea wind. And, distant hydropower stations used for pumped hydro storage. And, the extended distance east-to-west of the solar plants connected in the grid would extend, in essence, the “day” in which the grid would be directly collecting solar radiation. (And, the CSPs would store heat to enable power generation after sunset.)

Billions of watts of power could be generated this way, enough to provide Europe with a sixth of its electricity needs and to allow it to make significant cuts in its carbon emissions.

This is an amazing conception, a path for making reality of dreams for lighting our lives with the sun.

At the same time, the stations would be used as desalination plants to provide desert countries with desperately needed supplies of fresh water.

The benefits are, as suggested here, multifacted. Regions of the world signficantly short of water (even drinking water) would get significant new freshwater supplies almost as what we could call a ‘by-product’ of the primary product … clean electricity.

Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) will not be a small project. The rough estimate: £200 ($US 400 or so) billion investment over a 30 year period. And, at the end of the day, the kilowatt hour cost for this electricity could likely be more than today’s coal electricity; that is, more expensive than coal-electricity that does not consider “external” costs of pollution.

The concept is to build 1000 concentrating solar power (CSP) plants on “cheap” land in North Africa.

The massive construction program, the need for maintenance workers and operators, renewable energy for their economies, and the fresh water supplies all point to great benefits for North Africa from seeing DESERTEC bloom into reality.

Systems of Systems

DESERTEC is appealing on many levels. In addition to the low (non) carbon electricity, water supplies, and economic benefits, consider these points:

  • Shaded areas under the mirrors of CSP plants are protected from the full glare of harsh tropical sunlight and may be used for many purposes, including horticulture using desalinated sea water.
  • Reduced tensions arising from shortages of energy and water.
  • Improved relations amongst people in EUMENA via a collaboration that yields benefits for all. This is a positive alternative to the confrontational policies of recent years.

While DESERTEC’s electricity would likely be more expensive than simple coal-fired electricity without any “external costs” (costs external to the contract, like CO2, mercury, and particulate pollution), with DESERTEC it looks like we should be speaking of external benefits and seeking to incorporate those benefits into the cost just as we seek to incorporate polluting (and other external) costs to the costs of fossil energy use.

Could DESERTEC be a path for changing North Africa’s trajectory and offering economic progress and opportunities across the region?

Might it be a tool to help change the direction of the “Global War on Terrorism” through creation of hope and economic opportunity?

Could DeserTREC be a tool to leverage to solve Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab tensions and conflict?

Could the greening of areas around CSP plants in North Africa lead to the regreening of North Africa and, even more optimistically, start to lead to North Africa as a carbon sink with newly flourishing green zones? (Such as using some of that agriculture product (the waste?) for biochar for both enriching soil for increased agricultural productivity (“reclaiming the desert”; yes, I know that we need to be careful, that desert areas are real and valuable environmental space and that we need to consider impacts) and for the sequestration of carbon (a definitely win-win space)?

Bringing it to the Americas?


Imagine the change that this could bring to the Americas, perhaps as a ‘border’ project between Mexico and the United States, with elements of the system in both nations.

Good jobs building and maintaining the Concentrated Solar Thermal Power (CSTP) systems.

Clean electricity for both nations (to, for example, reduce Texas’ pollution levels).

Clean water due to the desalinization (for agriculture, for humans, to help restore dessicated wetlands).

Employment on both sides of the border due to farming activities.

And, ‘reclaiming’ of desert land while sequestering carbon through bio-char produced from the agricultural wastes.

We could work to solve more than one problem at a time, creating solutions with multiple benefits. Pursuing AmeriTREC would not solve Global Warming. It would not solve unemployment nor end poverty along the border areas. It would not end illegal immigration. It would not solve our energy problems. It would not sequester all of the carbon humanity has introduced into the atmosphere. It would not produce enough food to end world hunger. It would not provide enough water to restore the Rio Grande or Colorado Rivers to full flow. It would not … There is no Silver Bullet. But, an AmeriTREC project could help contribute across all these arenas and, quite possibly, make a serious dent in some of these. It would not be a Silver Bullet, but it could be a pretty big Silver BB across a panoply of issues and challenges.

This would be Change to believe in.

Just the briefest of overviews

This discussion is, of course, only the briefest introduction to TREC. For years, this has been in the Energy COOL category for me. The discussion of $10 billion in coming investment suggests that others might find this Energy COOL as well. And, well, that perhaps this is an Energy COOL concept that might merit bringing over the pond as part of the Americas’ move away from a carbon-energy society toward an Energy Smart future.

We can all help make
Energy Smart.

Ask yourself:

Are you doing your part to

    NOTE: This is a reprise of a discussion a year ago, but the timing might be a little more amenable to a serious discussion of visions like this and potential movement toward it. To be clear, this is a stove-piped discussion. The top priority, in any action re energy, is efficiency (whether buildings, transport, industrial processes, power production) and then renewable power. By no means does this diary represent my entire thinking on energy issues nor that I view something like this as THE Silver Bullet to save humanity … even if seeing this as something quite likely to be worth investment and even testing/development to see whether it merits a major investment in massive deployment.

  • Another the same series, Energy COOL: Big time solar around the corner?, talked about concentrated solar power (CSP) developments.
  • To place things in perspective, the US government invested $5 million in CSP for the 2008 budget.
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Tags: electricity · Energy · energy cool · renewable energy · solar · Solar Energy