The world’s largest concentrated solar plant will go active next month in Ouarzazate, Morocco, but fundamental problems of transporting electricity are likely to hamper the plant’s construction, if not cease it altogether. Nevertheless, the idea predictably has folks all atwitter.
This “blockbuster,” The Guardian’s Arthur Nelson exclaims, will turn Morocco into a “solar superpower” and “help provide nearly half of Morocco’s electricity from renewables by 2020 with, it is hoped, some spare to export to Europe.”
Environmentalists have long been excited by the possibility that deserts could provide enough solar electricity for the entire world, and at first glance, the premise seems to be accurate.
Morocco certainly views its deserts as having the potential to become a major exporter of solar energy, and is seriously considering exporting power from the Ouarzazate plant to European markets.
Deeper analysis reveals that the cost of transporting power across such a long distance is prohibitive.
When finished, the Ouarzazate plant will occupy an area as large as Morocco’s capital city and generate 580 megawatts, enough to power more than 300,000 American homes. Notably, the areas which are best for solar power are almost always far away from the areas that consume electricity, and transmitting power over long distances is extremely expensive.
Solar power necessitates “smarter” grids in order to cope with the constantly changing amounts of electricity, requiring a 500kv high voltage circuit transmission single or double circuit system to minimize transport losses. Construction a system to carry half of a megawatt in the United States ranges between roughly million for a single mile according to analysis performed for the Department of Energy, the results of which are in the table below.
Based on a calculations by the Daily Caller News Foundation, a system capable of transporting the 580 MW generated by the solar project for a single mile would cost $2.2-3.6 billion to build using a circuit system. Even using experimental and relatively inexpensive High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) systems would still cost about $1.7 billion per mile constructed.
According to Google Maps Ouarzazate is 372 miles from the Spanish border at Gibraltar “as a crow flies” and 525 miles by a more conventional route.
Merely moving the power to Morocco’s border with Spain would require first building an electricity transmission system costing a minimum of $819 billion to as much as $1.3 trillion with a circuit system of $663 billion using HVDC. Thus, transporting the electricity produced by the Ouarzazate solar plant to the European market would be 91 to 149 times more expensive than generating the power. This doesn’t include the cost of building transformers, of creating such infrastructure in Morocco specifically, or how the prices associated with building such a system would spike if it was actually being built.
According to the World Bank, in 2014, Morocco’s total GDP was $107 billion, making such a system of exporting power from solar rich countries prohibitively expensive. Generating power which cannot be effectively transported is an expensive exercise in futility.
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