European companies support vision to tap desert solar

2009-07-13 - A group of European companies will meet this week to inaugurate the Desertec Industrial Initiative and discuss an idea proposed by ABB in the early 1990s: harnessing solar power from deserts to deliver emission-free electricity to Europe.

By ABB Communications

The idea originated alongside the development of HVDC (high-voltage, direct current), a technology for the efficient transmission of large amounts of electricity. In 1992, ABB’s development manager for the technology, Gunnar Asplund, drew up a map detailing how renewable energy could be harnessed to meet the needs of our power-hungry populations.

His scheme included wind farms, hydro- and geothermal plants, and a series of solar plants across North Africa, connected to Europe by high-efficiency HVDC power links. In the 1990s, the map inspired dreams of the future. It is now the central theme of the Desertec project.

Desertec aims to make this vision a reality by generating emission-free solar power in the Sahara, meeting up to 15 percent of Europe’s electricity needs and a significant amount of local demand in producer countries by 2050. Last month, a group of European companies led by insurer Munich Re pledged support for the project, amid rising concern over the economic impact of global warming.

“The full potential of renewable energy in Europe and North Africa is huge,” said Joachim Schneider, head of ABB’s Power Products division in Germany, when he addressed the Power-Gen Europe conference in Cologne earlier this year. “Scandinavia alone has some 200 gigawatts of hydropower and 300 GW of offshore wind power, while southern Europe and North Africa have about 700 GW of solar power.”

Gunnar Asplund's map showing ABB's vision of renewable power

ABB has been a technical advisor to the Desertec Foundation for several years and has spoken about the project at a number of high-level conferences, most recently in May this year, at Power-Gen Europe in Cologne.

Until relatively recently, the idea of generating solar power in the desert and transporting it thousands of kilometers to consumers in Europe was unthinkable. The problem was three-fold: there was a lack of efficiency in transmission; a lack of generation technology; and a lack of political will.

But with improvements in the efficiency of power transmission and solar power technology, two of the hurdles are all but overcome. As the financial implications of global warming become clearer, the political will to drive projects like Desertec is building.

Using HVDC transmission, a technology pioneered by ABB in the 1950s, it is possible to transfer power with losses of no more than 3 percent per 1,000 km. With more than 90 percent of the world’s population living within 3,000 km of a desert, HVDC transmission lends ABB’s vision enormous potential.

Still the world leader in HVDC technology, ABB is working on a number of projects to strengthen the European grid. This includes the so-called European “super grid,” to feed power from offshore wind parks into the network, and efforts to increase the number of inter-grid connections, which will improve the flexibility and reliability of the grid.

The most recently completed project was NorNed, between Norway and the Netherlands: a 580 km underwater link that enables the Netherlands to import emission-free hydropower from Norway when demand is high, and export excess capacity from its thermal power stations when demand is low. This exchange reduces need for thermal generation and avoids an estimated 1.7 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year.

On the generation side, ABB is the leading supplier of systems and components for the wind industry and provides an extensive range of equipment, instrumentation and control systems to the hydropower sector. The Group has also been active in the solar industry since the 1990s.

ABB also has extensive expertise in conventional power generation and how it must be adapted to support the incorporation of large-scale renewable generation.

ABB now has a broad offering of power and automation solutions for the solar sector and continues to develop the specialist technologies that will be vital to the realization of projects like Desertec.

ABB solar installations include the Extresol and Andasol thermo-solar power plants in Spain, each with a capacity of 2X50-MW, and the pioneering 175-MW Hassi R’Mel integrated solar combined cycle power plant, in Algeria.

ABB’s turnkey delivery of the Totana photovoltaic plant in Spain in 2008, equipped with innovative solar trackers and patented optimization technologies to maximize the plant’s performance, demonstrated the breadth of the Group’s offering to the sector.

With much still to be done, ABB is working to support Desertec and provide the technological advances that will make large-scale solar power generation a reality.

Did you know?
Parabolic trough power plants use concentrated sunlight in place of fossil fuels to generate heat and steam to drive turbines and create electricity in a conventional thermal power plant. A large field of parabolic trough mirrors track the sun and concentrate solar radiation on a collector tube installed at the focus of the mirror. Heat transfer fluid passing through the collector tube is heated to temperatures high enough to generate steam.

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    Within the space of six hours, the world‘s deserts receive more energy than all the people in the world consume in a year.
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