Last week’s government Energy Review spoke of the risks of dependence on fossil fuels, and the need to increase the contribution made by renewable sources of energy.
In his 1903 book, The Romance of Modern Invention, Archibald Williams foresaw the decline of coal and the place that one renewable technology might play. ‘Even if coal fails, the winds and the rivers will be there, and the huge unharnessed energy of the tides, and the sun himself is ready to answer appeals for help if rightly shaped.’
Williams described solar power plants capable of generating huge volumes of steam and forecast: ‘The cheapness of the apparatus in proportion to its utility is so marked that, in regions where the sunshine is almost perpetual, the solar motor will in time become as common as windmills and factory chimneys elsewhere.’ His solar motors used mirrors to reflect and focus sunshine on to boilers.
Modern descendants of those early solar motors use the same principles of operation but are built to generate electricity. Because it uses an infinite energy source and generates no greenhouse gas emissions, Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) merits serious consideration as the most viable alternative to coal, gas and nuclear power.
CSP plants covering an area of the Sahara desert measuring only 110 km2 could supply the whole of the EU’s electricity needs. It is entirely feasible to transmit electricity from the Sahara to Europe using a High Voltage Direct Current transmission network — the same technology that interconnects the UK and French national grids.
Sadly, CSP does not feature in the latest Energy Review, even though it is has been operating successfully in California since the 1980s, is being adopted on a large scale by Spain, and has attracted the attention of many scientists and engineers across Europe.
Alistair Darling says the Review sets out an international strategy to tackle climate change and energy security. But there is not a single reference to any form of grid interconnection around Europe that would allow electricity from renewable sources such as wind, wave and solar to be shared.
An energy strategy that does not even give a passing reference to the only pollution-free energy source capable of delivering the world’s electricity needs for centuries, and ignores the vital need for a transmission network able to distribute clean electricity around Europe is seriously flawed. Perhaps these omissions are intentional — if we had cheap CSP-generated electricity from North Africa, we wouldn’t need any more nuclear power stations.