In Europe, solar vs. solar

Desertec, the group that wants to ply Europe with African solar thermal electricity, takes a jab at Greece's continental photovoltaic plan. Is thermal under threat from plunging PV prices?

Desertec, the ambitious German-led consortium that wants to ply Europe with solar thermal electricity from Africa, issued a curious welcome to a Greek plan that would muscle up that country’s photovoltaic industry and export electricity across the continent.

You might even say that Desertec took a defensive jab at the photovoltaic (PV) plan, in an indication that plunging PV prices could be threatening solar thermal power such as Desertec's.

For a quick reminder: PV generates electricity directly from the sun’s energy, while solar thermal taps the sun to heat up a fluid that eventually drives a turbine. Solar thermal typically deploys fields of mirrors, and is also known as concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP).

“We welcome the news of the planned developments in Greece,” Thiemo Gropp, director of the Desertec Foundation said in an email to journalists. “However, we must sound a note of caution and stress that photovoltaic (PV) solar power from Greece cannot provide a viable alternative to clean power from deserts.”

Gropp notes that photovoltaic schemes cannot store energy the way solar thermal projects can, and thus cannot export round the clock electricity. “Concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) plants offer the opportunity to store thermal energy and generate electricity even when the sun is not shining,” he says.

Desertec aims to provide 15% of Europe’s electricity from N. Africa and the Middle East. Given the enormous political and business challenges, its timeline is slow, aiming for completion around 2050 at an estimated cost of $400 billion.

The project, announced two years ago, has always faced political and licensing uncertainties in tumultuous countries, and also faces European regulatory hurdles regarding importing electricity. Other challenges include laying subsea cables under the Mediterranean, as well as the use of water in desert climates to clean mirrors.

Added to that, a rapid decline in PV prices could now undermine solar thermal economics. Last month, Solar Millennium AG announced that it is forsaking its trademark deployment of solar thermal technology in favor of photovoltaic panels at the 1GW Blythe Solar Power Project in California because PV was more cost-effective.

Solar Millennium is part of the Desertec consortium. Despite its technology U-turn at Blythe, it has said it remains committed to solar thermal in other areas of the world.

PV could further pressure solar thermal as a technology called “concentrated PV” (CPV) improves . CPV magnifies the intensity of sunlight before it hits a solar cell.

Greece announced its plan, called Project Helios, earlier this week. It wants to increase its PV output tenfold from around 200 MW currently to 2.2 GW in 2020, and to 10 GW in 2050, exporting much of the electricity to Europe.

It hopes Helios attracts as much as €20 ($28) billion in investment and helps to spin an economic recovery in the financially beleaguered nation. It is providing incentives for foreign investors.

There are intriguing political implications to Desertec vs. Helios. The German government has backed an EU bailout of Greece in a move that has been controversial within Germany. A successful Greek solar industry could feed an economic recovery there and lessen the German rescue burden. But it could also undermine Desertec, which is largely German, backed by Deutsche Bank, Munich Re, Siemens, E.ON, RWE and others.

This could become a marathon bout worth watching.

Photo: Flickr/npmeijer

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