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Desert Solar Could Meet 25% of World’s Power Needs by 2050

By Stacy Feldman

May 26, 2009

Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants could meet 7 percent of the world's power needs by 2030 and 25 percent by 2050, according to by Greenpeace, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association and the International Energy Agency.

Such systems currently make up just 430 megawatts of generation capacity, or less than one half of one percent of electricity needs worldwide.

CSP "is about to step out of the shadow of other renewable technologies and can establish itself as the third biggest player in the sustainable power generation industry," the report's authors write.

If that giant leap in capacity happens, they say, the sector would employ 2 million people in the next four decades and save 2.1 billion tons of global warming emissions in 2050.

Here's a glance at what it would take:

  • Long-term and stable feed-in tariffs that would help to overcome the solar cost disadvantage.
  • Renewable Portfolio Standards that would specifically apply to CSP.
  • Loan guarantees from banks and global environmental programs that would provide greater access to investment dollars.
  • Rapid increase of new grid capacity (especially via High Voltage Direct Current) to export solar power from CSP plants to industrial countries and emerging economies.
  • Investment of 21 billion euros a year by 2015 and 174 billion a year by 2050.


For Europe in particular, the report recommends engagement with North Africa, which has an "unlimited" solar resource that could power Europe by 2050 for a cost of $400 billion over 30 years. It's a promising project that is clearly not yet on the horizon.

Investment in the CSP sector passed the $1 billion mark in 2008, according to the . In 2009, it is expected to exceed $2.8 billion. Most of the installations so far are in Spain and the United States.

CSP uses vast solar mirrors that concentrate the sun's rays to temperatures of between 750 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to drive steam turbines. The claims that deploying a CSP supergrid on a stretch of desert 186 miles on each side could technically power the whole world.

The good news is the technology is proven. The first large-scale commercial CSP stations were built in California's Mojave Desert some 25 years ago. Even better is that utility-scale installations are "now economically viable," the report states.

High initial investment is required for new CSP plants. But, over the entire lifecycle of the plant, 80 percent of the cost is from construction and associated debt, and only 20 percent comes from operation. In fact, the report notes that the experiences with CSP plants constructed in California between 1984 and 1991 show that:

"Once the plant has been paid for, in 25 or 30 years, only operating costs, which are currently about 3 cents/kWh, remain and the electricity is cheaper than any competition; comparable only to long-written-off hydropower plants."

Bottom line, the report says: 

"Only when funds are available without high-risk surcharges can solar thermal power plant technology become competitive with medium-load fossil-fuel power plants."

True, investment funds and market incentives are vital to make CSP as cheap as coal. But the chances of these happening are dependent on something else that's desperately needed and sorely lacking: the political will to carry out the CSP solar vision.


See also:

American Pont of View

If Solar is so damned good, why is the American government, at great expense, clearing the way to ramming a pipeline from Israel on the Mediterranean, through Afghanistan to the Chinese oil claims in Turkmenistan! Wouldn't it be much easier to get the same or a larger amount of energy from the American South West and Mexico? And safer? and with less loss of life? If you guys have any validity, then you are saying that the war for Iraqi oil was for naught! All those fine American children killed and maimed, and the 650 Billion dollars+ spent there and not a drop of free oil? We could have annexed a whole Latin American country closer to the Equator, Solarized it and D.C. transmitted power to America for sure! and for less! and probably with the approval of the natives, and their full support for a well worded deal! And no loss of American lives at all! I simply do not believe the whole American government and all the American people who voted for them are so damned dumb! I know Spain and other countries concur with you, and have even proven you right, with working installations, but I have die hard faith and unshakable loyalty the the powers that be, as wiser than you, and will stick to large roaring V-8 engines and oil fired cities like New York to the bitter end of oil in the world! We will overcome you, renewable though you are, perpetual as the sun, you may be, but we will beat you in the end - oil will never die, even the Russian Scientists of the fallen U.S.S.R. say oil re-generates and the Saudi fields will fill up again, and the Eagle will fly there forever!


Thanks for this nice post...

That is good news

I am thrilled that 25% will be powered by solar energy.

Couple items to note

1. A typo "The first large-scale commercial CSP stations were built in California's Mojave Desert some 15 years ago." Actually, 25 years ago.

2. ""Once the plant has been paid for, in 25 or 30 years, only operating costs, which are currently about 3 cents/kWh, remain and the electricity is cheaper than any competition; comparable only to long-written-off hydropower plants." I am (sadly) surprised that operating costs are that high, although we need to remember that this is 25 year old technology/systems which have a number of improvements now. In any event, have to put nuclear power into the equation. Dependent mainly on the cost of uranium, the cost of a paid-off reactor's electricity is generally below 2 cents per kWh.

3. As pointed to, one of the key challenge for renewables: availability and cost of capital. I wonder whether we should be figuring out paths to subsidize capital costs rather than, at this time, paying per kWh the PTC. What might get built at a, for example, 4% 15 year loan rate as opposed to, perhaps, 8%?

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