You may have heard of the Ivanpah solar thermal plant, which opened in the Mojave Desert earlier this year. With 173,500 heliostat mirrors, three 450-foot towers, and generating capacity for 140,000 Californian homes, it is enormous. But here’s the thing. It may be small compared to what’s coming next. Between now and 2020, we could see several projects that are twice as big.
Take the TuNur scheme planned for the Sahara desert in North Africa. Instead of three towers, it is set to have 18. And instead of hundreds of thousands of mirrors, it could have more than a million, according to its developers. In all, it would cover 39 square miles and produce more than four times Ivanpah’s output.
The project is being put together by a London-based developer called Nur Energie, a British investment company and Tunisian investors. The idea is to cover a large chunk of Tunisian sand with mirrors, generate electricity on-site, and then send power the undersea back to Europe, landing at a port north of Rome, Italy.
It would also be much more costly than Ivanpah, which eventually came in at about $2.2 billion. Daniel Rich, Nur Energie’s COO, says the price could be as much as $12.5 billion, including generation and transmission. To go ahead, the project would need the backing of development banks and at least one European government. Nur Energie is in discussions with the U.K. about a guaranteed price for the power it imports. If it gets the go-ahead, it could begin production in 2018.
In some respects the project isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. The modules are separate pieces; they’re not dependent on the other to work. And there are already several DC electricity cables between countries.
Moreover, the plant, unlike Ivanpah, would include energy storage, in the form of towers filled with extremely hot molten salt. Rich believes the towers would be enough to provide up to 10 hours of electricity, should the sun not shine.
“The whole point is to provide non-intermittent dispatchable power. Renewables are great, but there’s a limit to how much you can put on the system. Europe is looking for base-load power because it’s looking to turn off their nuclear projects,” he says.
Building in a faraway desert may not be so crazy after all.