Working Papers

Desert Power: The Economics of Solar Thermal Electricity for Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East - Working Paper 156

12/12/08
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A climate crisis is inevitable unless developing countries limit carbon emissions from the power sector in the near future. This will happen only if the costs of low-carbon power production become competitive with fossil fuel power.

In this CGD working paper, Kevin Ummel and senior fellow David Wheeler focus on a leading candidate for investment: solar thermal or concentrating solar power (CSP), a commercially available technology that uses direct sunlight and mirrors to boil water and drive conventional steam turbines. Solar thermal power production in North Africa and the Middle East could provide enough power to Europe to meet the needs of 35 million people by 2020.

Ummel and Wheeler compute the subsidies needed to bring CSP to financial parity with fossil-fuel alternatives. They conclude that large-scale deployment of CSP is attainable with subsidy levels that are modest, given the planetary stakes. By the end of the program, unsubsidized CSP projects are likely to be competitive with coal- and gas-based power production in Europe.

The question is not whether CSP is feasible but whether programs using CSP technology will be operational in time to prevent catastrophic climate change. For such programs to spur the clean energy revolution, efforts to arrange financing should begin right away, with site acquisition and construction to follow within a year.

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