A bold new project aims to power Europe with electricity captured from African desert sunby Jeremy Leggett / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
The world needs about 13 terawatts of power every year, a figure that will rise to about 20 terawatts by 2020. The amount of sunlight falling on the planet at any one time is around 120,000 terawatts—more than 9,000 times what we need. The case for solar power is simple: capture only a tiny fraction of 1 per cent of the sun’s energy and we could provide much more power than the world needs. Add a little energy efficiency and some renewable energy, and we can do it with ease.
Where to start? The obvious places are the parts of the planet that get the most sun already: deserts. With the right technology electricity could be transported from hot countries on gigantic international energy grids for use in cloudy countries. Most of us associate solar energy with solar panels, otherwise known as solar photovoltaics (PV). But another widely applied technology uses the sun to heat up fluids—in power stations, for example, to heat water to drive turbines—an approach known as concentrating solar power technology (CSP).
To supply all the electricity Europe needs would, in principle, mean capturing just 0.3 per cent of the light falling on the Saharan and middle eastern deserts, in an area smaller than Wales. Knowing this, a group of German industrial giants in July launched what may be the world’s largest solar project: a long-planned partnership of 20 finance and energy companies to build new African CSP plants, led by Munich Re, and including E.ON, Siemens and Deutsche Bank. Picture row upon row of curved mirrors with semicircular profiles, in glittering fields, scattered across the countries of northern Africa. The plan—dubbed Desertec—hopes ultimately to provide 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity needs, and aims to figure out how this can be done within the next two to three years.
Such a giant project will not be easy. The estimated cost, somewhere near a cool €555bn ($788bn), might seem a lot. But given that the International Energy Agency calculates that we need to spend $45 trillion on new energy systems over the next 40 years, it could represent good value. The real problem is getting the power back to Europe. The plan has backing from the European commission, whose Institute for Energy envisages a network of African CSP plants linked to Europe by a new high-voltage transmission grid, which could also capture energy from wind power from…