Desertec Needs To Be Defeated Decisively

I have registered at the German BBS “Photovoltaikforum” recently and am participating in some of the discussions there. As I mentioned earlier, that BBS gets about a million hits per day.

Right now there is a lively discussion about Desertec, sparked by the news about an international agreement on Ouarzazate financing. While most of the people posting there are supporting solar energy in principle, some of them don’t like large scale projects and think only rooftop installations should be supported. The first post and title of that thread refers to the “Desertec Irrsinn” (madness).

I am of course arguing the side of supporting Desertec in that thread.

So am I convinced by this opposition that projects of energy from the desert should be shelved? What’s up with that headline “Desertec Needs To Be Defeated”?

The idea behind that is just a spirit of rivalry. I want the Gobi desert project to defeat the original North Africa desert project decisively in the race between different projects.

Desertec in North Africa has a large head start, so it may be difficult to beat that in Asia. But it is still very early days everywhere. Maybe Saudi Arabia will come up on top. Maybe even the Australians wake up and understand that they could export energy from their excellent desert resources in the form of limestone, instead of exporting coal.

Who knows what will happen until 2050. But I think it is fun to think of the various potential sources of World energy supply as rivals, and I would count myself on the Asian team.

Go Mongolia! Defeat Desertec!


Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003,

7 thoughts on “Desertec Needs To Be Defeated Decisively

  1. Desertec is for the big business birds. The writing is on the wall and the grim reapers knocking. PV is significantly cheaper and much faster than CSP. PV can also be placed just about anywhere which means you can avoid transmission costs and bottlenecks.

    You don’t need to put PV on rooftops but the ideal is to site PV next to load where you have the owner of the system using the power from the system. In this arrangement you maximize the benefits. Maximizing benefits will lead to faster deployment. CSP will actually slow down the deployment of solar by distracting the money lenders and policy makers from PV which is the go to renewable technology.

    We shouldn’t be goofing around with CSP anymore. It’s a fascinating technology but it’s a distraction.


  2. To be fair, you would need to compare the cost of PV plus storage (probably only hydrogen possible in the dimensions relevant here) to CSP, which comes with built-in storage. Or you might end up with a long power line that only used 25% of its capacity, and failing to deliver energy in the time slots it is most valuable.

    And, while it is true that CSP is losing out in direct competition to PV right now, it was the other way round just a couple of years ago. Get the same mass deployment for CSP and then see what happens. Why should simple mirrors be expensive, once the Chinese start producing them as well?

    That said, I don’t mind using either PV or wind in the deserts (the Gobi project will actually start out with wind). And the IEA task 8 publications on energy from the desert by Kurokawa and others always looked at PV as technology.


  3. You do not add the costs of storage to PV. We don’t do with natural gas – we don’t need to do this with PV. CSP can fetch a slightly higher value but it’s marginal and far too oversold by the sales reps. You have to consider that solar will be pressing hydro and natural gas resources out of daytime generation. CSP would be competing directly against these resources during the shoulder supply periods.

    CSP and the underlying power block technology has been around for a long time. There are several reasons why CSP could be more expensive than PV. The power block is pricey. The material requirements of dealing with salt solutions are challenging and expensive. Tracking alone costs 25 cents/Watt. Cleaning is a bigger deal with CSP due to the optics and this will always be the case. When you add cleaning requirements to a desert environment you have issues. Add in the costs of transmission at 50 cents/Watt and the whole scheme goes up in smoke.

    Build PV projects in North Africa but build them for North Africans. I’ll bet you money Desertec will be abandoned within a year.


  4. I would take you up on that bet offer, if I were a betting person in the first place. 🙂

    With international financial institutions in with $1 billion at Ouarzazate expecting Desertec to be “abandoned with a year” seems to be rather harsh.

    But if you are right and all the North African projects get cancelled, well, then Mongolia will have won by default with one measly $626 million wind park. 🙂

    PV will need storage as well in Germany shortly, since there won’t be many years left where demand will be able to match peak supply, and just throwing away low carbon energy does not seem to be a smart way to deal with climate change.


  5. You don’t need to throw the electricity away. You can ship it out of the country using the existing transmission lines on which there’s plenty of available capacity. You can also shift loads into the day that would otherwise run after sundown. I can’t recall the specific number but Germany used to have well over 10 GW of storage water heaters back in 1990s. You can also use the 8+ GW of pumped hydro storage that Germany has. PV is many years from needing bulk storage in Germany.

    It frustrates me that something as simple, cheap and easy as storage water heater gets little attention while these terribly expensive CSP projects get several stories a week – all from well meaning folks I’m sure. I believe that thinking in terms of mega-projects and grand plans is the wrong way to approach the subject. I think the better way to approach the subject is with a near term localized focus. You can’t solve the problems of tomorrow without getting through today. I understand you’re a writer so you want/need to write about the BIG EXCITING WONDERFUL thing. At the end of the day I think the big thing is a lot smaller than you may thing – but I still think it’s every bit as BRILLIANT.

    Can you name me a grand plan energy project that was a good idea? Back in the 50s and 60s engineers thought it would be a good idea to build these things called nuplexes where you had 10 nuclear power plants all in one place. And these nuplexes were surrounded by farms so you could recycle all the waste heat from the reactors and grow biofuels and what not. It was all pop science propaganda. You learn how bad this idea is on day one of systems operations class. Thankfully nuplexes never happened but the essence of the idea never went away – Desertec is a direct descendant.

    Here’s a thought for you. Do you know how a heat pump works? Are you familiar with the idea that you can put one unit of electricity into a heat pump and get 3 units of heat at the other end? Now… if you could store those three units of heat and then come back to them later and convert them to electricity with a heat engine then that’s just the same as a CSP setup as far as storage goes. Better yet… why not just come back to those three units of heat and use them for heat.

    People get hung up on storage but they don’t understand the incredible expense involved. You are many times better off if you invest in new ideas that are flexible rather than trying to mold solar into behaving like old energy.


  6. Grand energy project that was a good idea (in my opinion):

    I have heard about heat pumps (first from McKay’s book), and I need to add them to the list of storage/time shift options.

    I also know of the potential of just heating up water. Zuhausekraftwerk uses that.

    I agree with you that in principle, distributed energy generation is superior to big centralized projects. I have discussed this as “Edison’s revenge”. We might even get rid of alternate current if you can power all your gadgets directly from your own direct current solar installation, giving Edison a late victory. The new Japanese energy strategy also wants to move into that direction, comparing it to the development of the Internet in the 1990s.

    But I want the big projects to happen as well (though preferably with the Gobi beating North Africa). Climate change needs every bit of low carbon energy that can be possibly deployed.


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