Could the Sahara Desert Power All of Europe?

The Sahara Desert covers roughly 3.5 million square miles of land in North Africa. A handful of German private firms wants about 2,300 of those square miles for development. The goal? To kick-start a massive solar power project that they believe could one day provide all of Europe’s cumulative power needs. Sahara Home Solar Power Announced in July, Desertec EU-MENA (Europe-Middle East-North Africa) concept, which involves building concentrated solar power (CSP) plants throughout arid North Africa, continues to pop up in the news. It now has the vocal support of European leaders like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and continues to gain exposure as Europe strives to reach its goal of 20% renewable energy by 2020. According to a study cited by Desertec, 17% of Europe’s energy supply could be provided by 2020 from solar power imports alone. That, Desertec estimates, would require 2,500 square kilometers of desert and 3,500 more of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines, which translates into the 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 sq miles) mentioned earlier. And that’s just a start. If all goes their way, the Saharan region (including the Middle East) could be producing 470 gigawatts of solar thermal power by 2050. For all the momentum the plan has gained, an equal amount of skepticism has arisen. Common criticism includes the very concept of importing power rather than producing it domestically, the potential threat of a corporate energy monopoly, security issues, the exploitation of unstable North African nations, feasibility and expense. The price tag is definitely staggering, coming in at roughly $500 billion, most of which will go to improving transmission infrastructure throughout North Africa and Europe. Yet the “intent” to form a consortium of funding companies announced in July should become a reality very soon. Desertec is expected to formally announce a limited liability company, the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative (DII), by October 31 as required under German law. Initial investors include big names like Siemens, Schott Solar, ABENGOA Solar and Deutsche Bank. Of course, the official formation of a company will not erase skepticism nor the logistical, political and financial issues inherent in such an ambitious project. But support is there as cash-strapped nations open up to the idea of private enterprise helping to solve their energy problems while enabling the fulfillment of renewable energy goals.

Posted on October 28 in Solar News by .

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