From 19 to 20 May 2011, high-level representatives from the fields of science, economics and politics will be discussing the potential of solar energy as a source of energy for the future, at the Solar Energy for Science

In this interview, Ulrich Wagner, DLR Executive Board Member responsible for Energy and Transport, describes the scientific contributions that can be made to enable Africa and Europe to obtain clean energy from the desert.

The Symposium is taking place at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) Research Centre in Hamburg

Interview by Dorothee Bürkle

What contributions can and must science make to solar energy?

Wagner: Solar energy can and must play a very important role in the future of energy supply. It is a prerequisite for the very ambitious goals of saving resources and reducing carbon dioxide emissions that Germany and Europe have set for themselves. We already have decades of experience in generating solar power using photovoltaics and solar-thermal systems. This is where science can make its contribution: there is still a great deal of potential for the development of more efficient and, thus, more cost-effective solar power generation. The faster scientists can improve the systems, the faster Europe will be able to count on the desert for a reliable source of energy.

We are already seeing great potential for generating large amounts of energy more cost-effectively with solar thermal power plants. For example, researchers are working on operating systems at higher temperatures, which increases their efficiency. Greater efficiency, longer lifespans and reduced maintenance requirements will enable the solar-thermal power plants of the future to generate power substantially more cost-effectively. At DLR, this broad research area is being covered with energy systems analysis. Feasibility studies indicate that obtaining energy from the desert is a realistic option for Africa and Europe.

It should be mentioned that many of the conference participants and speakers come from northern Africa and the Middle East. Are solar researchers in Europe and Africa working more together?

Wagner: Yes, in fact numerous collaborations have begun in recent times. Although this has not been obvious to the general public, we have been working together for a number of years. I am particularly pleased that all the partners involved are here together with greater visibility. In Hamburg we will be discussing both research topics and the first actual projects in northern Africa. At the meeting in Hamburg we can initiate more projects and fine-tune strategies.

What incentive do Africa have to work with us?

Wagner: By developing solar energy, Africa can reduce its energy imports. Their energy supply can be based on more reliable and sustainable technologies and thus save money. The African countries also see the option of exporting energy to Europe and the rest of the world in the long term. And last, but not least, with the facilities that are being built there, Africa has access to this technology; they have the possibility of advancing research and development in this area themselves. We need to support Africa in this respect because this development will contribute significantly to the region’s stability in the long term.

And, why is Europe interested in collaborating with Africa?

Wagner: To begin with, African countries have much greater access to the Sun as a resource than Germany. Germany and Europe have set themselves very high goals for climate protection, which cannot be met using renewable energies in their own countries. In this respect, we need support from Africa. Researchers in Europe have not only developed the technologies for solar-thermal power generation, but worked with businesses to put this to industrial use. Although this technology cannot be applied at our latitudes, there is a clear market along the Earth’s sun belt – and that includes Africa. You could simply say that both sides will profit greatly from collaboration.

What will this collaboration be like?

Wagner: The main focus will be the development of technological capability. Solar energy experts are scarce in both Africa and Europe. With the enerMENA project, DLR is training experts from northern Africa at research and test facilities in Cologne and Almería. The DESERTEC Foundation has set up a similar programme with the DESERTEC University Network, which we are contributing to. Furthermore, researchers are running the first demonstration projects in northern Africa and the Middle East and are collaborating in the development of the required infrastructure. DLR researchers are taking part in the development of a solar tower in Algeria that will be used as a test facility. In Morocco, DLR scientists are supporting their colleagues in developing a local research infrastructure.