On Moonshot Thinking and Wireless Power Transfer in Post-Oil Algeria
Over a century ago, Nikola Tesla envisioned a future where electricity flows wirelessly across the planet. Unfortunately, our energy infrastructure did not change much and wireless power did not made much progress either. However, Tesla’s vision made sense then and continues to make sense today. In this post, I attempt to explore this “moonshot idea” in the context of the imminent energy transition in Algeria.
Algeria has the 10th largest proven gas reserve and 16th largest proven oil reserve in the world. Algeria also produces about 2% of gas and 2.5% of oil consumed worldwide. Next to these encouraging numbers, we have some alarming ones: 95% of Algeria’s income comes from oil and gas exports, and oil production has declined by 12.5% over the past 10 years. Furthermore, while gas production remained almost constant over the past 10 years, local consumption has doubled. Today, 50% of gas produced is consumed locally.
As a result, Algeria is now facing the reality of a declining GDP in a grim economic environment. As a matter of fact, from 2012 to 2013, the GDP per capita barely increased by 50 dollars (the smallest increase since 2009). And in a more recent news, the price of oil has declined by 30% over the past 3 months to around $80 per barrel today, while economists suggest that anything below $110 may have severe consequences on the economy in the short term.
To get out of this situation, Algeria is now betting on its large shale gas reserves (world’s 3rd largest), but it will take at least 7 more years till the infrastructure is in place. Not only that, but the environmental cost that will be associated with this choice is very expensive. In fact, there is heated debate today in the US on whether americans should continue their efforts in this direction.
Now the question is: how can Algeria maintain its GDP growth knowing that oil, gas and shale gas are invalid options?
The Way Forward
The answer is probably in the geographic map: Algeria is the 10th largest country in the world, with enough solar exposure to supply the entire world with clean solar energy. Producing enough solar electricity to power the entire European Union (72% of oil and gas produced in Algeria is exported to the European Union) is technically a no brainer.
In fact, there is a whole concept called DESERTEC which aims at making this vision happen: building very large scale solar PV (LSPV) power plants in north africa to generate electricity and transporting it to the Europe. And the key word here is “transporting it”!
The transportation of electricity for long distances is tricky because of the cost of building the infrastructure, and the losses that increase as distance increases (the order is thousands of km), let alone the environmental impact, insurance and interruption costs, intergovernmental agreements as these grids will have to cross several countries, etc. In short, none of the power transportation technologies we have today can meet the economic and technological constraints. And at this very stage of the discussion Nikola Tesla comes to mind: long distance safe wireless power transfer.
If Tesla was successful in his venture to transfer power across the Atlantic Ocean, his invention would very well save Algeria today to beam electricity to Europe across the mediterranean sea!
Do we have the technology today?
NASA and JAXA (the US and Japan’s national aerospace agencies) have already done extensive work to study the feasibility of producing solar electricity in space and beaming it to a ground station in the form of short-wavelength waves. Demonstrations of this approach of transporting power have been successful a long time ago (1970s) but over short distances (order of few km), but no demonstration has been shown yet over very long distances like Nikola Tesla thought possible. Although NASA seems to have abandoned the idea for economic reasons, JAXA continues to work towards installing a space-based solar power plant in orbit by 2030. In addition to JAXA, the Los Angeles based startup Solaren also aims at putting a solar power plant in orbit and has already signed a power purchase agreement with PG&E (7th largest electric utility in the US, and 18th largest in the world). The agreement will become effective in 2016.
Europe very well realizes that meeting demand in the next few decades is rather challenging partly because of the increasing severeness of winters because of climate change. Europe also knows very well that oil and gas from Algeria will one day expire. In addition to this, because of the increasing demand for clean sources of power to mitigate the consequences of climate change, Europe is more interested than ever in clean energy resources. This means that Algeria is in a situation of losing its role as an energy supplier to Europe, and the only way to keep playing that role is to supply power that is: abundant, clean and at a low cost. Very large scale solar PV plants combined with wireless power transfer can potentially meet all those.
In recent news, there were several events of drones flying over nuclear facilities in France. In a world where advanced technology is becoming ubiquitous and extremism has shown unprecedented levels of spread and violence, the requirements of protecting and operating nuclear facilities are becoming increasingly costly. Not only that, nuclear energy is not a dispatchable source of power: nuclear plants can not respond timely to peaks of power demand.
Algeria is facing some daunting economic problems and risks its role as a major energy player. Technically, very large scale PV power plants combined with wireless power transfer stations seem to be a hard but a sound bet.