Ever wondered why the Sahara desert hasn’t been converted into a giant solar panel by now? Well, DESERTEC, a syndicate of engineering and construction firms, must have read your mind. Its ambitious plan—based on a concept developed by politicians, economists and scientists from around the Mediterranean—is to power 15% of Europe and a sizable portion of the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) area by 2050 using just the light from the Saharan sun.
Creating a Framework
Twelve companies interested in the project, including Siemens and ABB, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on July 13 of this year to establish a DESERTEC Industrial Initiative (DII) based on the DESERTEC Concept, a vision statement for using desert areas to generate solar power, with the benefits of reducing CO2 gases, the primary cause of global warming, and phasing out of nuclear power. The DII aims to analyze and develop the technical, economic, political, social and ecological framework for the DESERTEC Concept.
At the signing of the Memorandum, His Royal Highness Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan said: “The partnerships that will be formed across the regions as a result of the DESERTEC project will open a new chapter in relations between the people of the European Union, West Asia and North Africa.”
How It Will Work
The project plans to generate renewable, carbon-free energy from the North African desert by constructing Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants, which use mirrors to focus sunlight onto water pipes at 400-700°C, producing steam that turns steam turbines and powers generators.
Deserts As Energy Windfalls
Covering more than nine million km², the Sahara could nearly swallow the US whole, but DESERTEC only needs to use 0.3% of the desert to achieve its aims. According to DESERTEC-Africa, the solar energy captured by each km² of desert is equivalent to one-and-a-half million barrels of oil, meaning deserts around the globe alone could supply “several hundred times as much energy as the world uses in a year.”
While the German Aerospace Center estimates the project could cost up to $600 billion, their studies support Greenpeace’s “Global Concentrating Solar Power Outlook 2009” report by suggesting that electricity imported from solar plants in MENA is likely to become one of the cheapest sources for Europe, even including the cost of transmitting it. Greenpeace claims that solar power could electrify a quarter of the world by 2050.
There are other benefits for the African community, besides clean, renewable energy in an area used to pollution from—and war over—its natural oil resources. Excess heat from the power plants could be used to desalinate sea water for drinking, and the construction and operation of the CSPs would create local jobs, reducing Africa’s brain drain. There is even the possibility of growing plants under the shade of the solar collectors.
Solar energy has already proved successful in African countries such as Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. And the DESERTEC Concept, founded in 2003 by the Club of Rome’s Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation (TREC), is supported by the German Aerospace Center and has twelve companies keen to launch. So what’s delaying the Sahara project?
Silencing fears of energy loss during transit across the Mediterranean Sea, DESERTEC plans to limit the loss to 10-15% using High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines. The fact that sunshine in MENA is nearly double that of Europe makes it worth transporting the electricity such a distance.
Political unrest in the MENA area could be discouraging the European Commission from endorsing the DESERTEC Concept. DESERTEC points out, however, that large investments are currently being made in MENA by the oil industry, despite security concerns.
The Next Steps
DESERTEC’s next steps include negotiating partnerships between EU and MENA countries to set up the DESERTEC Concept; encouraging MENA countries to develop capabilities for the manufacture, installation and maintenance of the solar panels; and a one-GW trial in interested MENA countries.
While solar power is finding success in areas of the world that have deserts, the absence of deserts in Europe need not limit its solar energy supplies. Importing it from the world’s largest hot desert is a viable option. And, as a bonus, capturing solar energy in the Sahara desert is clean and economical, and would encourage stability in the MENA area by creating jobs, electricity and water. It seems like a concept (or should I say, Concept) with a lot of promise.
DESERTEC WhitePaper (pdf)
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