The way many people think about the future of our civilisation reminds me of the joke in which somebody jumps from a skyscraper and, while passing the 10th floor, concludes that "up to now everything has gone fine...". We know very well today that a continuation of the current energy policies will not be successful and slow changes will not be sufficient to meet our needs in the future.
Here are some numbers. In 2050, mankind will need primary power of about 25,000 GW. This is equivalent to 25,000 nuclear power plants. Today, we produce 300 GW from nuclear power, a number not really relevant on the global scale. We produce about 2000 GW from renewables, which is also not sufficient. Today, our civilisation is almost entirely powered by coal, gas and oil. In order to protect our climate, we have to cut down fossil power consumption at least by a factor of two until 2050, which leaves us about 6600 GW of fossil power.
To reach the required 25,000 GW by 2050, a gap of 14,800 GW has to be filled with new capacities. This means that we need to build new primary power facilities at a rate of 1 GW per day over 40 years. This number gives an important insight: we will not be able to build one new nuclear power station every day over the next 40 years. And even if we were able to, we would not want to build 14,800 nuclear power stations because of the risk of terrorism and proliferation. We will also not be able to build one new fusion reactor every day. To solve the energy problem on a global scale we need a technology that is simple, safe, and inexhaustible.
The DESERTEC concept proposes to solve the world's energy problem by making extensive use of solar power from deserts. Using existing technology, the potential of solar power in deserts exceeds today's world power consumption by a factor of 20. Concentrated solar power stations in combination with thermal storage will provide electricity on demand. High voltage DC lines will bring power to the people. The DESERTEC concept works globally as 90% of the world population lives within 3000 km from the nearest desert. Smart supergrids that connect continents allow power consumption to be regulated and for fluctuations in wind and solar power generation to be averaged out. (Watch this video for more information).
A supergrid that connects Europe and North Africa goes beyond energy policy. Europe will not only profit from cost-effective clean solar power generation, but - even more importantly - Europe profits from the political stabilization of North Africa caused by its economic growth, and from a new business market in its vicinity. The growing problems of migration and ideological extremism can be mitigated by close collaboration of Europe and Africa.
Africa reaps the advantage of getting sustainable energy, fresh water from sea-water desalination, foreign currency by selling electricity, new possibilities for industrial growth and a large number of new jobs and perspectives for the future of the young population. The power between Africa and Europe can bring the continents closer together in an economical and may be even in a cultural way.
To summarise, the DESERTEC concept provides a secure, economic and ecological energy supply and, at the same time, it is a job motor and an incentive for peace between the rich and poor regions of the world.
Michael Düren will be joining four brilliant technical innovators for Intelligence Squared's Energy Game Changers at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London on 28 March. The event is part of the Switched On live events series with Shell and the International Herald Tribune.
Professor Michael Düren is a physicist at Giessen and Hamburg University and co-founder of the Desertec foundation
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