The Sahara Sun Could Power Europe
In the summer of 2004, I found myself working out of Adiri, the capital of Wadi Ash Shati, a district of central-western Libya known for its iron ore and magnesium deposits.
Libya also just happens to be one of the few sources left for highly prized “light sweet crude,” so-called because it contains less than 0.5% sulfur and is therefore easy to refine. Washington was about to drop sanctions against capital city Tripoli, and the company I was advising was eager to get back into the business of pumping the black stuff there.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, we were on an unsuccessful mission. We found little oil.
But there was plenty of merciless heat. I was on the northwestern fringe of the Sahara Desert, and I vividly remember thinking that the vast expanse to the south seemed desolate and useless.
Seems I could not have been more wrong…
Just Across the Mediterranean, Sunshine Is in Demand
Actually, it is such a simple idea, you wonder why somebody didn’t think of it sooner.
The European Union wants 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. And the Sahara certainly has no shortage of sunshine. So why not use solar power generated in the North African desert, run power lines under the Mediterranean to Europe?
Well, almost three dozen European companies have thus far joined together, in what is being called the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative, to do just that. And they are not stopping at solar generation. They also plan to put up wind installations.
The project will cost a whopping $560 billion – at least, that is the aggregate figure DESERTEC has been using of late to attract initial investment interest. And then there is the development period – installations will be constructed over the next 40 years.
However, lest you think this is merely another pipe dream, consider this.
A DESERTEC Foundation has emerged to popularize the concept of using the immense desert to power E.U. countries. That effort is led by Max Schön, German head of the Club of Rome. And, on September 6th, the German government approved the project as part of its official energy plan.
DESERTEC says it will have a feasibility study completed shortly and be into building the first power plant by 2013.
Meanwhile, a separate European group called Transgreen Energy, formed only two months ago, is working on plans for the thousands of miles of high-voltage lines needed. If it moves forward, this is likely to be one of the biggest infrastructure projects in history, involving dozens of countries and hundreds of contracts.
That is garnering considerable interest from a wide variety of engineering and energy companies, including powerhouses like German Siemens (NYSE:SI) and Swiss-Swedish ABB Ltd. (NYSE:ABB), along with Spanish Abengoa Solar (OTC:ABGOY), and even Arizona-based First Solar Inc. (NasdaqGS:FSLR).
Yet there are additional parties becoming involved for reasons other than the lucrative construction contracts.
Several of the European utilities would favor becoming less reliant on Russian natural gas for their generating needs.
And several of the better-known German-based insurers regard DESERTEC as a way to offset damage from global warming. Some even regard the project as an effective hedge against rising energy shortfalls.
The Real Question: Feasibility
Nobody questions the potential advantage of the relentless Saharan sun. And connecting the two continents by power cables is not even a novel idea. Electricity is already moving under the Mediterranean, although the present flow is in the other direction – from Spain to Morocco.
The technological base DESERTEC has decided to employ will be expensive. Initial projections put it at no less than four times more costly per kilowatt-hour than electricity using coal or gas as a fuel source. The project will certainly require considerable government subsidies. (ABGOY, for example, recently received a $1.45 billion loan guarantee from the U.S government to construct a 250-megawatt solar facility in Arizona.)
But government grants, loans, and guarantees are not going to be enough. Where will the financing come from?
To date, DESERTEC and Transgreen members have come up with less than $10 million for feasibility studies. Their intention is for European governments to require utilities to pay more for the Saharan-generated electricity, following a current approach employed in Europe to stimulate solar and wind energy development at home.
Unfortunately, two of the countries regarded as most strongly in favor of DESERTEC – Germany and Spain – are reducing rates. Then again, how much political support actually exists for the project among North African countries is also a concern. While Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt support the project, Algeria wants to develop solar plants independently.
Some have also questioned whether Europe could not do this at home. Upon examination, however, that is simply not possible.
For any significant solar generation to be possible, you need considerable space.
How much? Try several hundred square miles at a clip. DESERTEC has indentified more than 20 such locations in North Africa, spanning vast areas of the desert. There are no genuine equivalents back in Europe.
The process also requires continuous sunlight to allow mirrors to concentrate the sun’s power to both heat and drive turbines. This is the concentrating solar power (CSP) process necessary for the extraction and storage of energy allowing for the generation of electricity. The addition of wind turbines will also reduce the cost a bit. But this will still be a tough sell.
Still, I would like to think that all that sweating my you-know-what off in the futile search for oil in Libya may have actually been a precursor to the desert giving up a very different kind of clean and renewable energy.