Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Megalomaniac solar

Well, it was on the nightly news yesterday in Germany, and it is now online at Der Spiegel: a group of investors plans to devote a whopping 400 billion euros to concentrated solar power in the Sahara.

For those not familiar with the technology, we are not talking about silicon solar cells here, but rather about mirrors that focus heat on some medium (such as oil) to heat up a tank that creates steam to drive a conventional turbine. It's a great technology, it's currently cheaper than photovoltaics in sunny locations, and it allows us to store the energy as heat and release it after the sun goes down, when everyone is sitting at home in the evening with their lights on watching television -- something you cannot currently do with photovoltaics.

One drawback is that we will be locking up a significant amount of funding in countries we have no control over. Granted, we have already done that with oil, for instance, and I have even met people who say, "see, it will work." I cannot understand this thinking.

On the nightly news last night, one German researcher said that these projects would be spread across 10 countries south of the Mediterranean, which would also spread the political risk. Okay, here's how it will work (I am basing all of this on the history of oil exploration): we will come up with different agreements with all of these countries, and one of them will feel cheated. That country will then nationalize the investments that these companies made and renegotiate the contracts to have more of the money stay within that country.

The other countries will then be tempted to follow that model and will gradually do so. This, I should point out, is one of the more positive outcomes. A more negative outcome would be a revolution somewhere that leads to the violent destruction of this equipment, which is basically glass and can be easily broken with rocks. Since this equipment will also not be installed in areas that can be covered by sand dunes (imagine all this expensive equipment covered with sand), it will instead be put in more rocky parts of the desert with less sand, so the projectiles you need to destroy the equipment will be all around you.

Of course, all of this is being done in the name of cheaper renewable energy, so as soon as all of this starts to go wrong -- and it is only a matter of time -- the only argument in favor of this project will no longer apply.

Whose side will be on when the North Africans reclaim their land, nationalize these European investments, and unilaterally renegotiate prices? Will you be on the side of rich Europeans who were too stupid to realize how cheap renewable energy is going to get in Europe? Or will you be on the side of the less developed nations of northern Africa who refused to sit by and let Europe get cheap energy off their land without getting a fair shake -- as they define it?

If you want to invest in renewables in Africa, do it -- for the Africans. Otherwise, I would hate to see such a large sum of money be stranded somewhere instead of devoted to domestic renewable energy production.

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