Saturday, May 30, 2009

Power from Africa

In a recent post, I mentioned a video about a German study on a future 100 percent renewable supply of electricity. One of the researchers mentioned in the comments to that video (though not in the video itself) is Gregor Czisch, who used to be a researcher at the University mentioned. I covered Mr Czisch in a German article a few months ago, and he was not happy about the coverage. Here is his response in German, if you can read that.

Essentially, he is proposing a gigantic grid to support large wind farms of the size that T. Boone Pickens would be interested in. These fields of wind turbines would be located in the best locations in Africa and would supply power to Europe and Africa. His proposal is that this wind power would be cheaper than the kind of distributed power many renewables proponents envision. Jobs would be created both in Northern Africa and in Europe, and the power from these intermittent wind sources in Northern Africa would complement water power in Switzerland and Scandinavia, for instance. Hydro dams could switch on in Europe when not enough wind is coming from Africa.

In principle, this approach is quite interesting. But as I explained in my German article, there are a number of problems. First, his figures for economic feasibility are based on the assumption that large companies will forgo their profit margins. These central wind farms are so big they could not possibly be set up by community projects. If we are to set up thousands of turbines in Morocco and Egypt and run high-voltage DC lines under the Mediterranean (forget about the tricky issue of whether "Arab electricity" is going to run through Israel or not), you are going to need not only consent from the King of Morocco, but also from Spain and Electricité de France. The project is perhaps best thought of as something for Sarkozy's Mediterranean project; it is even beyond the mandate of the EU.

Czisch often expresses his disappointment that German utility companies are not more interested in his project, but let's face it -- none of them have a branch office in Africa (to my knowledge). And these companies do not enjoy having a researcher calculate that their profit margin might be as high as 20 percent. I am not saying that Czisch's figures are not accurate, but just that it is politically inopportune for him to point the accusatory finger at the utilities his projects cannot do without.

Second, even assuming, as he does, that European governments could finance these projects with low-interest loans, allowing private companies to get a reasonable profit margin (say, 10%) on at least part of the deal, it is unclear that these sites will actually perform as well as some studies suggest. The Energy Ministry of Morocco told me personally in January when I visited them that they cannot confirm Czisch's statistics; they merely stated that "a German study has come to these conclusions, but the price of wind is currently twice as high." In addition, I understand that part of the site he is talking about in Egypt has been declared off-limits for wind because it is a major migratory path for birds.

Third, we should be asking ourselves whether we want to switch our current dependence on foreign supplies of fossil fuels for a future dependence on imports of renewable energy. I would certainly argue that power produced within political borders that we can influence is worth more than electricity different parts of the world outside our scope of influence. If Czisch can get me electricity from northern Africa for six cents per kilowatt-hour or less, I would be willing to pay 10 to get it from within the EU. I have nothing against northern Africa, and I have nothing against getting some of our electricity from them, but if the political situation ever worsens, leaders in northern Africa could threaten to cut off the supply of electricity to Europe. Do we want that? How does that differ from what is currently going on between the Ukraine and Russia concerning gas?

Fourth, I do not believe that Czisch sufficiently takes the current electricity situation in Northern Africa into account. At present, Europe is a net electricity exporter to Morocco, for instance. And while electricity consumption seems to be more or less stagnant at the moment in the EU (the current economic crisis makes it difficult to forecast), it has been growing by leaps and bounds in Morocco -- by some eight percent per annum, which means that consumption doubles every decade. In light of those figures, the question is whether Morocco will ever be able to export a significant amount of electricity, or whether most of it will be devoted to domestic consumption -- which is fine by me, but then you have to design the project as such, and not as primarily for export to Europe.

This blog entry is quite long already, so I will leave it at that -- maybe I will have time soon to come back to the particular comments that Czisch makes in German on his website.

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