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Europe looks to draw power from Africa

Sahara Desert could become home to solar-power plants

Emiliano Feresin

Nature News, 2007-11-27

The power needs of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa could be met by an ambitious idea to network renewable energies across the region. The cornerstone of the plan, developed by a group of scientists, economists and businessmen, involves peppering the Sahara Desert with solar thermal power plants, then transmitting the electricity through massive grids.

Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan was scheduled to present this green-energy idea, dubbed Desertec, to members of the European Parliament in Brussels on 28 November.

The vision is ambitious: it would require roughly 1,000 100-megawatt power plants, using mirrors to concentrate energy from the Sun's rays, throughout the Middle East and North Africa to meet the region's projected energy needs. A high-efficiency electricity grid, yet to be built, would then ferry the power around and across the Mediterranean Sea and northern Europe.

"The technology for the Desertec concept is available and can offer unlimited, cheap and carbon-dioxide-free energy to Europe," says Gerhard Knies, a retired physicist based in Hamburg, Germany. Knies is co-founder of the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC), which came up with the Desertec idea.

"It makes a lot of sense to profit from the high amount of solar radiation in the deserts."

The European Union has a binding target to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, so the idea is gaining support in some areas. "It makes a lot of sense to profit from the high amount of solar radiation in the deserts," says Robert Pitz-Paal, head of the solar research department at the German Aerospace Agency (DLR). But with a price tag of almost €400 billion (US$595 billion), it remains to be seen if Desertec will be adopted politically.

"Unless it's extremely cheap, it won't stop people using easy-to-get fossil fuels," says Jon Gibbins, an energy engineer at Imperial College London. "We didn't stop using coal in the last century because of oil."

Nationalistic concerns may also be a stumbling block, with European politicians reluctant to be dependent on Africa. For instance, Hermann Scheer, a member of the German parliament, is in favour of renewable-energy approaches, but is pushing for European energy autonomy through small, decentralized power plants on European soil.

The vision of covering the Sahara with solar panels to generate electricity for Europe goes back to Frank Shuman, a Philadelphia-based inventor who built a prototype solar thermal plant in Egypt in 1913. But the idea never took off, and today solar power in the region comes from relatively small solar-cell installations on houses and other individual buildings.

In 2003, Knies co-founded TREC and began presenting the idea at conferences. He eventually got the attention of the German environment ministry, which has commissioned three technical studies to evaluate the concept. Germany aims to get 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050, and is a leader in developing solar thermal power. "The ministry was interested in knowing if it's feasible to import solar energy from North Africa and to penetrate the market there," says Ralf Christmann, an officer at the ministry.

The Desertec scenario foresees a mix of renewable energies, from wind to geothermal to biomass power (see map, below). But the core is solar thermal power, which uses solar energy stored in a special heat-retaining fluid to drive a turbine and create power. First demonstrated in 1982 with a 10-megawatt plant in California's Mojave Desert, solar thermal plants can now produce electricity at a cost of about 15-20 eurocents per kilowatt-hour. According to the DLR, further improvements in technology and scale could bring that down to less than 10 eurocents per kilowatt-hour, making it more competitive with coal.

Power sharing: how the proposed renewable-energy network might look

Initial solar thermal plants are being planned in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, with more under construction in Spain and Italy.

Bringing electricity from Africa to Europe presents another challenge. The DLR says that €45 billion of the overall budget should be invested by 2050 to place high-voltage d.c. transmission cables throughout the region. Such a line already exists between Norway and the Netherlands.

The Desertec group is asking parliamentarians to set up a €10-billion fund to finance the development of solar thermal plants over the next 7 years, and to establish a political framework for the idea. But although the project may not take off on the scale its supporters hope for soon, solar thermal power could still pick up elsewhere. "Right now, 1,000 megawatts of solar thermal energy are being built in California and Nevada deserts, and we are planning an additional 5,000 megawatts," says Dan Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. "Exploiting solar energy from deserts is a good idea worldwide."


27 Nov, 2007 Posted by: Maarten Vasbinder MD. An old plan I developed years
ago. Electricity does not seem the way. Better seems to be using
compressors to build compression in a kind of barrel. Let us go from
ten thousand to a million bar A valve system will release the
pressure as needed. These barrels can be stored, can have different
dimensions and can be transported. They have been tried already by
Citroën cars. It must be possible to sail a super tanker from
Amsterdam to New York on one barrel. Explosions will be clean and
always caused by a manufactory fault. Maarten

27 Nov, 2007 Posted by: Michael Powers. The proposed grid to
connect Europe with Africa is just part of a series of global
interconnections which Fred Pearce called the "electric hypergrid" in
a New Scientist article several years ago. This is a new "world wide
web" emerging right before our eyes. It is a global energy network
and, like the internet, it will change our culture, society and how
we do business. More importantly, it will alter how we use, transform
and exchange energy. For more information, see

27 Nov, 2007 Posted by: Information Centre. An exciting vision. One
fascinating aspect for me is the political question. Take for
instance Western Sahara on the Atlantic coast. How would you put all
of the proposed solar and wind installations in place in a region
that is still in dispute?

27 Nov, 2007 Posted by: Luca Fenu. Not to spoil the party
but, has anyone given any thought to the challenge of keeping the
plants operational in the extreely harsh desert environment? How long
will mirrors last under the frequent sandblasting of storms? Just

28 Nov, 2007 Posted by: M.Kabir Banu az-Zubair. This is a great idea, but it is
curious how the sub-sahara Africa is being kept completely out of
this initiative. I cannot imagine what logical explanation might be
there that would justify its exclusion. The solar energy is not
limited, is it?

28 Nov, 2007 Posted by: Esther Kibuka- Sebitosi. Looked at purely from
a scientific and energy-provision perspective, the idea is great.
However, the geopolitical and historical perspectives between Africa
and Europe bring to the fore controversies and questions. The way the
project is currently designed it appears to be for only Europe and
the Middle East. The following questions are pertinent: 1. To what
extent is Africa as a continent at large, going to benefit in this
energy generation? 2. What about the property Rights over the Sahara
Desert where the solar plants will be built, given this is African
soil? 3. How would the power benefit Africans other than Algeria,
Egypt and Morocco, all of who happen to be Arab countries? The
power generated should benefit Africans. 4. What about the surrounding
African countries? 5. What can be done to share this glory both in
Europe, Middle East & Africa? 6. Have the historical realities of
Europe unfairly benefiting from Africa's resources with Africa
perpetually remaining a beggar been fully factored in the bigger
picture? As it currently stands, the projects looks nothing more than
the continued exploitation of Africa and her natural resources for
the benefit of Europeans and, in this case also, the Middle East. Any
project to build solar plants in the Sahara Desert must benefit
Africans otherwise this project is just a 21st century version of the
exploitation of African resources for the benefit of Europeans. E.

28 Nov, 2007 Posted by: Brenda Larison. It is startling to
look at the map of the planned solar grid and note that there is no
plan for sub-saharan Africa. Not only does this reek of further
exploitation of the African continent it lacks any forward thinking
in terms of the impact development in sub-saharan Africa will
eventually have on the global climate. Would it not be better to make
sustainable energy available now than to see another China on the
horizon having massive energy needs met by coal or other non-
sustainable means?

29 Nov, 2007 Posted by: Olivier Danielo Desertec. A great concept. About Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) costs : 1 ) Google today announced a new strategic initiative to develop electricity from renewable energy sources that will be cheaper than electricity produced from coal. The newly created initiative, known as RE<C, will focus initially on advanced solar thermal power (...) : (eSolar/Google: - 2) The Promise Of Solar Energy - A Low-Carbon Energy Strategy for the 21st Century : - 3) About CSP and seawater desalination :

29 Nov, 2007 Posted by: Jayesh Menon. Who will be coordinating between countries which are still fighting for ownership of land and resources my humble curiosity Jayesh menon

Last updated: 2009-08-20 (ISO 8601)