Sunday, August 8, 2010

This is a mega-project worth watching

The idea is to harness the solar power of the Sahara and ship it north to Europe.  The Desertec Foundation website seems to be one of the operations pushing this idea.  It claims to be partnered with ABB--which is a company that would stand to make a large pile if such a project were funded.  Or not.  Desertec asks for donations which seems a bit odd for a partner of ABB.  Still, it is the kind of thing we need to  do.  And serious companies besides ABB are climbing aboard. The consortium includes Siemens, Munich Re, Deutsche Bank, RWE and E.on, among other companies.  I also covered this idea back on May 28.  The folllowing is a mission statement from the Desertec site.
For Global Energy, Water, and Climate Security
Desertec: Clean Power from Deserts
By far the largest, technically accessible source of energy on the planet is to be found in the deserts around the equatorial regions of the earth. The DESERTEC Concept is designed to bring deserts and existing technology into service to improve global security of energy, water and the climate. DESERTEC stands for a globally applicable solution for limiting CO2 emissions by a rapid expansion of renewable energies.
And then there is this fine piece that reminds us that when it comes to infrastructure, rebuilding is going to be WAY more expensive than building in the first place.  Keep that in mind whenever you hear some well-meaning environmentalist tell you that he has 50 easy ways to save the planet.  No. No. No.  Building a sustainable society will be VERY difficult and VERY VERY expensive.
Infrastructure, Deficits, and Global Recovery
Fred Block - August 3, 2010
A TALE of two episodes in the life of a bridge tells us a lot about the dilemmas facing governments around the world. The Bay Bridge linking San Francisco and Oakland was originally built between 1933 and 1936 at a cost of $77 million. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the eastern span had to be rebuilt. The project began in 2002 and is supposed to be completed in 2013, with cost estimates now running at $6.3 billion. Despite our technological progress, replacing just half of the old bridge will take four times longer and cost five times more, after adjusting for inflation, than the initial construction. Rush hour tolls were recently increased to $6 roundtrip to help cover these mounting costs.
Even if we allow for some waste and inefficiency in the rebuilding project, the historical cost differences are still enormous. Some of this is because safety practices were casual in the 1930s, and because they didn’t have to work around hundreds of thousands of commuters already using the bridge. But the key problem is that bridges and other infrastructure projects don’t benefit from the astonishing productivity gains that we have made with mass-produced goods. Bridge-building is much more capital intensive than it was seventy-five years ago, but you can’t simply pop out another bridge segment the way that cars, computers, or toasters now jump off heavily automated assembly lines. Almost all infrastructure projects resist standardization; they have to be adapted to particular physical sites, and this drives up costs. Nor do we let employers pay workers the prevailing wage in China; earnings for the skilled workers and managers on such projects have risen much faster than inflation.
When we generalize from the story of this bridge to all infrastructure projects, it becomes clear that the cost of maintaining and rebuilding our infrastructure will inevitably rise as a percentage of GDP, even if our infrastructure needs remain constant. And they won’t: we need more infrastructure now than ever before. more
Update Mon August 9 2010

I got a lovely email yesterday from someone at Desertec by the name of Marian Bichler.
Dear Jonathan,
I want to comment on your post about Desertec.My internet adress is (only in German, I am Berlin based). Here some insights into the Desertec project:
Concerning Desertec: Desertec organisation and Desertec Industrial Initiative are completely separate. The organisation is a NGO, which has been pushing for the project for many years. The initiative is a companies' consortium as result of this pushing, and it gained its huge momentum by a strange way of chance: News paper articles in Germany about the Desertec Industrial Initiative plans in June 09 created an enourmous positiv public outcry. The involved companies were far from having expected such a hype! Now they felt themselves urged to actually follow the plan on the grand scale that was announced by the papers. And this is very interesting: how public expectations drive company actions. Without this huge public interest in Germany, of course there still would have been the project - but most probably not so quickly, not so determined and not with this kind of worldwide outreach. First movers in June 09 were Munich Re, Siemens, RWE, EON, Deutsche Bank with Munich Re having been the convener.
In the German newspapers ABB was not in the very very frontlight of the first moments.
And: concerning the public outcry: Germany has a big tradition in renewable energies, which result from the successfull fight against nuclear power in the eigthies and from this famous feed-in-tariff-law, which intially started around 1990, got momentum 2000 and which made it profitabel to invest into renewables. Of course there have also been huge discussions in Germany considering the "imperialist" touch of Desertec, but again, this public interest turned out to be a perfect issue management, because it showed the Desertec Initiative which pitfalls have to be avoided. They are very eagier to make sure, that Desertec will be a win-win situation for the MENA-region and northern Europe.
Best Marian

To which I responded.
Thank you for your delightful email.
In 1989, I was in Finland giving a series of lectures on the main topic of my writing which is Elegant Technology.  I was in a room with some VERY serious engineers including several experts on district heating--something the Scandinavians do VERY well. We got around to talking about one of my favorite topics--the need for HUGE industrial development themes and that those themes must result in actual mega-projects.
Being educated men, they wanted me to define my terms. Was installing district heating in Seoul South Korea an example of a mega-project? these guys wanted to know. "Probably not," says I, "although hooking up a major Asian city with district heating is obviously a good thing to do. My idea of a mega-project is paving over a minor fraction of the Sahara with solar collectors and using this energy to power Europe."
I went on to list some of the benefits of such a scheme--there are hardly any people to displace or in a position to object, the people with the highest possibility for making this work will be paying for industrial development that will eventually benefit all peoples in tropical climates, it will be a giant motor for job creation, it would solve the two biggest problems facing civilized life--the end of the Age of Petroleum and climate change, etc.
Trust me on this--I was only suggesting solar collecting in Sahara as a theoretical example of an idealized mega-project. I had NO idea that there were real people promoting the construction of real hardware and drawing real plans and evaluating real technical solutions. That kind of information was pretty impossible to get in St. Paul Minnesota in 1989 where I lived and studied.
So you can imagine how excited I am to learn that folks may actually be moving on this. I wish you and your organization great good fortune. I especially congratulate whatever amount of influence you have had on convincing guys in the corporate leadership of outfits like Siemens that ideas like yours are the FUTURE!
I should tell you my engineer hosts raised two important points. 1) transmission of energy is still pretty primitive. Your mega project doesn't make economic sense until it makes thermodynamic sense. District heating makes economic sense because it first makes thermodynamic sense. Transmission maybe has improved since 1989--hope so. And 2) Have some serious intellectual talent address the problem of what happens when you transmit major amounts of energy from one area of the planet to another. Other than that, the consensus was that this was mostly an engineering problem that good engineers could solve.

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