Silicon from Desertec Mongolia

In the early stages of any Desertec project in the Mongolian Gobi desert, there won’t be any international power lines available to export the electricity as far as Japan and Europe. So how can the energy be sold with a profit? What exactly is the business case for having lots of energy available far away from any consumers, as long as the power lines are not in place?

Of course, in the very early stages the mining industry might use some of the power. Getting the Oyu Tolgoi project to scrap their plans for a coal power plant would be nice, as blogged before. That would be demand of about 1.85 TWh per year, estimating from 325 MW generation capacity they need according to this article at BusinessCouncil Mongolia, and assuming a capacity factor around 65 percent. That would be a nice start.

So what to do with bigger amounts of energy generated far away from other consumers?

One way to go would be the quicklime cycle discussed previously. Make some quicklime with solar kilns and use that as an energy transport medium, as well as just selling the quicklime to the construction industry.

With this post, I would like to introduce another idea. Make silicon right in the desert.

Actually, the silicon industry uses a lot of electricity. For example, this 2010 article at PV magazine has this to say about the economics:

“About thirty percent of the cost of silicon in Europe comes from electricity expenses,” says Robert Hartung, board spokesperson for Centrotherm Photovoltaics in Blaubeuren, Germany. Centrotherm is one of the largest factory outfitters for the manufacture of solar silicon and crystalline cells. “It’s similar to smelting aluminum. In the future, we believe that new silicon plants will be built where electricity is cheap.”

Making silicon from sand uses a lot of electricity since it requires smelters working at very high temperatures of over 2000 degrees Celsius which can’t be generated from oil or gas.

There are two things that make this particular idea attractive. One, from the point of view of Mongolian development, it gives them a new industry instead of just selling their sun energy and desert space. I understand this is an important goal of the Mongolian government.

The other thing to like is the idea that the solar cells already working in the desert project help building more of them, bringing down costs even more. This is a virtuous cycle. The more and cheaper energy comes from the desert project, the faster it can grow.