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The low cost of Desert Energy

The low cost of Desert Energy

Desert Energy has two different price labels: Investment cost and operating cost. Warning: The numbers demonstrate rough figures of these projects. Individual cost may differ depending on the type of power plant, the location or the connection to the European Energy Market. All costs are written in terms of Euros. 

For Desert Energy to be useable we have to build two structures: a power plant in the desert and a transmission line to Europe. If the energy is used locally or the facility produces hydrogen, the cost of investment drops significantly as the transmission line is not necessary in these cases. 

The cost of the transmission line can vary a lot, but it is always a significant part of the overall cost. 

For that reason the transmission line is used to its maximum utility with roughly 3 GW. To achieve this power output, several power plants are connected to one transmission line. Al Noor for example has an output of 580 MW. Each GW did cost 5 billion to install with older Generation 2 Plants. Newer plants have improved that figure to 2-3,5 billion per GW. 

Keeping the transmission-distance under the sea as short as possible is key, as the installation at sea is fairly expensive. The Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain is ideal (that’s why transmission-lines already exists there) alternatively a connection via Sicily is short as well. 

At the moment the European grid is able to facilitate the export of electricity from North Africa to Germany. For that reason the first connection to Germany would mainly consist of a sea-cable, for example to Sicily. With growing export from North Africa a direct transmission line to Germany would be necessary. This line would circumvent the South-European grid in order to protect it from overload. These longer distances over land would also be covered by high-voltage-direct-current-transmission-lines. Although underground cables are more accepted by the public, traditional overhead-landlines are still the cheapest option. Depending on the proportion of underground cables to overhead lines, the total cost (sea cable included) can vary from 2 to 15 billion. (Upper range for the hypothetical case that the entire land distance is laid underground). 

With the help of bigger installation-ships, the installation-cost of the sea-cable will drop in the future. Additionally improvements in the materials could lower costs of the cable itself. 

From that perspective, desert energy seems to be at a disadvantage with the high investment cost.  Nuclear Power Plants are the most expansive to build, so it is not a fair comparison. However, CSP-Plants are no longer that far away from Coal- and Gas-Plants. Of course the cost of operation is the selling feature of desert energy: No fuels required and the sun doesn’t charge anyone for shining. 

The maintenance cost of such a power plant is comparable to that of the slightly more complex gas or coal plants. Nuclear plants have a far higher maintenance cost, due to higher security requirements. 

At this point fossil fuels already offer no advantage over desert energy and their position is getting worse: Even without the climate crisis, renewables are inevitable. The world is running out of fossil fuels! Although there are some reserves in Siberia and Antarctica, the cost will go up. These locations are not economically viable for large-scale extraction. 

And when some commodity gets ever rarer, while demand increases… the price goes up. 

Even before China´s entry into the global fight for oil, gas and coal the energy market was already tight. And the consumption of Europe or the USA is not about to drop, even with more efficient technologies. Soon there will be India with another billion people going for the western level of living and Africa is booming, both in terms of economy and in terms of population. 

Whoever thinks that 10 billion people with the living style of a westerner fighting over limited amounts of fossil fuels will not increase the price, has not understood the concept of demand and supply. 

Yet another additional cost for fossil fuels and nuclear power is the aspect of long term damage. The oil industry has a massive negative impact on fishing, for coal hectares of fertile land are dug up and the price tag for storing nuclear waste isn’t even determined yet. 

The immense damage done by extreme weather (drought, storm etc.) can only be estimated at this point, but according to the IMF and the UN it is surely in the range of several trillion euros summed over the next years. 

The following chart sums up the different costs of the most common energy sources and desert energy: 

Source Investment cost Cost of Production Long-costs
Coal 1 billion €/GW 5-8 Cent/KWh Mining damage, costs of climate crisis, degraded land
Gas 1 billion €/GW 7-9 Cent/KWh Cost of climate crisis
Nuclear Power 7-8 billion €/GW 8-15 Cent/KWh
CSP (3. Generation, no cable) 3.5 billion €/GW 6-9 Cent/KWh

The table shows that only the cheapest coal plants are able to beat solarthermal-plants, while gas plants are equivalent in operating cost. With tax cuts and direct subsidies for coal being on the fall in most countries the low cost of coal is not achievable in the near future. Additionally many coal plants are quite old and would need a major overhaul in the next years. This massive cost will be passed on to the consumer as well. 


Opportunities for Development

At the moment deserts are a negative geographic feature. There are almost useless in terms of agricultural production and food imports are a major contributing factor to the poverty of countries in Africa or the Middle East. 

Desert Energy would be a chance to let the deserts bloom! Not only the local energy demand could be met, but exporting the energy would give vital hard currency supplies. These are needed to get medical products, agricultural machinery and other investment goods for the development of the own infrastructureand development of public services and economy. At this point countries throw off their import/export balance to get access to these goods and accumulate debt in the process. 

These exports and hard currency supplies offer developing countries the chance to take their development into their own hands. 

Additionally desert energy can provide desalination of sea water to increase agricultural output, hygiene standards and combat desertification in places that would normally be lost due to the climate crisis. 

The ultimate use of synergies would be an energy oasis: Solarthermal plants desalinate seawater and photovoltaic modules provide shadow when placed on the roof of greenhouses. Excess electricity could be used to extract carbon-dioxide out of the air, boosting the plant growth when injected into the greenhouses. These Oasis would massively boost the agricultural output. 

Energy transition for Industrial Nations

The three biggest problems of a full energy transition to renewables would be solved by desert energy:

Transmission: With desert energy, only a few power plants in the desert have to be connected to a few electric substations in Europe. This so-called point-to-point grid is far easier than connecting thousands of small suppliers like wind farms to a super grid.
Baseline supply: With solar and wind, a lot of additional money and effort has to go into batteries or other storage. Despite Power-to-Gas now getting viable, it is still cheaper to just install a reliable baseline supply. With desert energy, the problem is solved once and for all.
Cost: At the moment wind and solar plants are installed whose potential will never be reached and the sun doesn’t shine all the time and wind is not a given. There has to be more wind and solar than the current demand, because in case of good weather both the supply must be satisfied as well as demand from storage facilities who ensure supply at a later point. This huge overkill of installed power costs a lot of money.

It is much more economical to invest in machinery that runs 24/7. Thanks to thermal storage, solar thermal energy can be supplied during the night.

At this point, we will look at a basic calculation for Germany, Europe´s biggest consumer of energy.

The peak power needed in Germany is 80 Gigawatts, with 40 Gigawatts constituting baseline supply. Already 40% of the electric energy is supplied by renewables. If we want to install another 50 GW of baseline power with desert energy to reach over 80 GW of green production that would cost less than 500 billion euros. Germany spends 100 billion euros per year (!) on coal, oil, gas and uranium, half of that money is spend on imports. Compared to the annual public spending of 1,4 trillion (government + social security) that isn’t a lot for a one-time expenditure. After less than 5 years the investment paid off in macroeconomic terms as Germany would save money by not importing so many fossil fuels.

Opportunities for Investment

The energy sector is never going to decline. Energy will always be needed. There is no market shift or economic trend that is going to change that.

Desert energy has already been tested on a commercial scale. Al-Noor and many other projects proofed that. The biggest bottleneck is the lack of presence of this idea in the minds of investors. At the moment investors are craving for investment opportunities:

  • Most big companies have enough turnover to cover their investments and therefore require no loans.
  • The housing market is already at a record high
  • Live insurances and retirement schemes struggle to fulfill their promised profit
  • Admittedly desert energy is not as flexible as company shares that can be sold at each point in time at an existing market, but for long-term investment, the option is very attractive as profit and stability are guaranteed.

Even within companies, desert energy is an attractive option. Energy-intensive processes could be supplied by these plants and thereby lower costs.

Another option is hydrogen production. Hydrogen is needed in large quantities in the chemical industry or it could be shipped to airports or seaports as fuel.