Monthly Archives: June 2014

Can the Deserts power us?

The African Coast in 2050
The African Coast in 2050

The picture is on the North-West coast of Africa in 2050. Large ships are loading fuels for export across the world. In the distance smaller ships are loading specialist chemicals and bringing feedstock for processes.

Inland, across the 5000 kilometre wide Sahara desert, huge solar power stations are in action. Some use solar cells, others store heat and use it to make power for 24 hours a day, others generate hydrogen. Near the Atlantic coast, where access is available for large ships, industrial plants use that hydrogen and electricity. The output is chemicals of various types and transport fuels for cars, ships and planes.

Mauritania, which is on this coast, is now one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Its development from one of the world’s poorest countries was as sudden as the oil boom that transformed the Persian Gulf in the twentieth century. It boasts cities built by the best architects. Its citizens own the top soccer teams.  Its population has grown as it has attracted people from across Africa and the brightest and best from across the planet.

The abundance of electricity has attracted other industries both to Mauritania and to its neighbours. Nigeria is now a top manufacturing country and has remained prosperous even though there is little demand for its oil.

This is not the only such industrial site in the world. There are others in Australia, the Southern USA, Mexico, Namibia, the Middle East, India and China.

The North African countries that face the Mediterranean also generate electricity and hydrogen but their prime market is direct sales to Europe. Half of Europe’s electricity supply comes from North Africa.

Why can’t this happen now? Fuels produced this way are more costly than fossil fuels. Opinions differ on when the cost of energy from renewable sources will fall far enough to make them competitive. My view is that renewables may be more costly than fossil fuels for many years. The cost of renewables is falling, but not quickly enough. There is more than enough fossil fuel available to destroy the planet.

Isn’t solar electricity becoming competitive now? Well I keep reading that it is, but I suspect that doesn’t include the costs of the kit required to turn an intermittent supply during the middle part of the day into a 24 hour supply wherever it is needed. I’d be very pleased to be proved wrong.

Can’t we increase the price of fossil fuels to deter their use? Taxes on fossil fuel, or charges on fuel producers will always be politically unpopular. They make fuel expensive. They leave the poor unable to heat their homes or travel to work while the rich can still afford tons of fossil fuel for their super-yachts.

The most important issue in bringing about a sustainable economy is to find an acceptable financial mechanism to drive it. The Qtax is one option. It directly measures the environmental degradation caused by each individual. It does not prevent the rich from owning super-yachts, but it punishes them financially if they use fossil fuels to build or propel them. The rich will therefore drive development of sustainable technologies.

Why make fuels? Won’t everything be electric in 2050? Many things will be electric, because it is efficient to use electricity directly, but liquid fuels like petrol are much more energy dense than even the best battery. Hydrogen gas is another potential fuel. It can be used directly as a fuel but it tends to work out heavier than a liquid fuel because of the heavy containers needed to store it. There are therefore many applications where range, weight and power requirements will dictate the use of a liquid fuel.

Why not make liquid fuels from plant materials? That is done at present but the amount that can be made is limited by the space available to grow plants and the fact that we need plants for food. In theory much more could be produced using solar power in deserts.

Is it possible to make liquid fuels this way? See Wikipedia for the state of development of these processes. The cost and efficiency of these conversion processes will be crucial factors in deciding whether they are widely used.

Isn’t it environmentally destructive to industrialise the desert? Yes, to an extent it is. Humans have to make judgements about which parts of the planet they want to sacrifice in the interests of protecting the remainder. The Qtax gives a mechanism to drive the least damaging forms of planetary degradation. Desert power production to meet all of the world’s energy requirements would use much less than half of the available desert, There will still be vast tracts left empty. See SEWTHA for details of how much energy can be produced in this way.

Is desert solar the obvious answer to all our problems? It looks very promising, and will probably be a big part of the future. There are however potential political questions that could affect the reliability of supply. The cost of this energy will be higher than fossil fuels, and if it is too high only the wealthy will be able to afford it. It is worth developing other energy options until those questions are answered.