Gold rush in the Sahara

sahara.jpgGolden sunlight, that is.

I have been wondering how long it would take for this to happen.  An area the size of the United States, virtually barren of people, useless for agriculture or, seemingly, anything else.  But with one, previously unappreciated asset: year-round, blazing sunshine.

So while our leaders in this country, acting and prospective, are beginning to recognize that perhaps cranking up more coal plants is not the ideal solution to our energy needs in a changing world, the Europeans are characteristically out ahead and thinking creatively about the future.  And the future could be bright, so to speak.  From Nature News reports that 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, centered on a massive solar energy collection system in the Sahara:

“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 . . . 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.

energy_super-grid.jpgThe DESERTEC scenario foresees a mix of renewable energies, from wind to geothermal to biomass power (see map). 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.”

There are many challenges to this plan, obviously, including getting the cost down to the point of being competitive, relying on countries like Algeria and Libya for energy (isn’t getting out of that neck of the woods another major reason why we want to get away from oil?), and transmitting all that electricity to the distant population centers where it’s needed.  But at least it’s a plan.  And, as I was told more than once in grad school, if it was easy somebody would have done it already.


About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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