If you listen to solar advocates in Europe, the upheavals on this side of the globe — revolutions in North Africa, debt misery in Greece — have only brightened the prospects for solar power. German plans to phase out nuclear power have put at least one large nation in the market for new sources of power, and two would-be providers have sworn that global crises won't hurt their ambitions. On the contrary — they'll help! (Just watch out for those other solar salesmen.)
First there's Greece. Germany's perennial project to both aid Greece and save the euro might include a deal to buy solar energy from Athens. "Greece has a much higher number of sun hours per year than in Germany," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble explained in August, "and they could export electricity to us."
The plan crystallized this month after Greek Prime Minister Georges Papandreou met German leaders to discuss ways to spark a Greek recovery. A proposed investment project called "Helios" might create 30,000 to 60,000 jobs in Greece, which badly needs them, and ensure a small stream of electricity for the Germans, who badly need renewable energy.
"We can supply the Germans with 10,000 to 15,000 megawatts," Papandreou said after the meeting.
By the way, he added, "There was a [solar] project in the Sahara, but it is in jeopardy because of the political turmoil" in North Africa.
This is where it gets funny, because advocates for the North Africa plan — Desertec — will tell you no such thing. Desertec is an ambitious project to install reflective solar heaters in the Sahara. Steam-turbine plants in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt will generate some energy for domestic use but send the rest to Europe via a trans-Mediterranean grid. The Mediterranean grid still has to be built, but a German-led consortium of insurance and power companies has been working on the financing since 2009.
Two of those power-generating nations, Tunisia and Egypt, overturned their governments this year, and that's a concern for the power-using Europeans. The Arab Spring called Desertec into question — at least from a distance — because it wasn't clear who would be in charge.
Thiemo Gropp, director of the Desertec foundation, told a German paper in the spring that "so far there has been no obvious setback." The Tunisian revolution left enough of the relevant officials in place. "The people we've dealt with, who helped to advance the solar plans in Tunisia, have actually been strengthened," he said. "The revolutions have helped Desertec."
But Gropp was skeptical about the prospect of solar energy from Greece. The Desertec plan is to use large, low-tech rings of solar reflectors to beam sunlight onto pipes full of water, something called "concentrating solar-thermal power." It will boil the water into steam to turn the turbines that generate electricity, and store some of the heat in storage tanks full of molten salt that can heat water when the sun is down. And it doesn't need photovoltaic cells to convert light to electricity.
"We must sound a note of caution and stress that photovoltaic solar power from Greece cannot provide a viable alternative to clean power from deserts," says an official statement from Gropp, who goes on to explain the virtues of the Desertec storage tanks.
It's a little surprising to watch two potential solar providers snipe at each other over the German market. With their funding sources so different, there's no obvious competition for money. But it's a good sign. Massive changes in Africa as well as Europe may yet nudge solar-energy projects forward.
Still, no global development this year has touched the major problems Germany has to solve before it can seriously consider solar (or any mix of renewable sources) as a thorough alternative to nuclear power.
One problem is a high-capacity grid. Europe needs more efficient cable to build a long-distance market for green energy, otherwise too many valuable electrons will be lost between the wind or solar farms and the distant consumer. New cable, of course, has been developed and even installed, but the process is slow.
Another problem is verifying energy sources: The European Union's energy commissioner, Guenther Oettinger, has admitted that Europe could, in theory, be tricked by providers in North Africa willing to juice a "clean" trans-Mediterranean solar grid with cheaper energy they generated on the sly from fossil fuels.
But the most important problem is cost. Solar still costs at least $160 per megawatt hour to produce. (And that's using photovoltaics; concentrating solar-thermal is more expensive). Coal and gas range from $60-$80 per megawatt.
"The idea [behind Desertec] is to generate an expensive form of power and then transport it across long distances," Bloomberg analyst Jenny Chase told The Ecologist last year. "That doesn't stack up without significant amounts of subsidy. ... I suspect that given the timescales involved, solar power may become cheap enough to deploy widely in Europe without needing to transport it from North Africa."