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Experts say only a fraction of the Sahara desert, probably the size of a small country, would need to be covered to produce enough clean electricity to supply the whole of Europe.

By Eartheasy Posted Feb 1, 2010

solar_field_aHarnessing a small part of the intense power of the Sahara sun with a giant network of solar panels has the potential to provide clean energy to Europe while significantly reducing carbon emissions, and experts at the European Climate Forum and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, are considering the viability of such a plan.

A giant network of solar panels in the Sahara desert could transform Europe’s energy supply within a decade, according to Dr Anthony Patt of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Africa, if investment could be generated and transmission challenges overcome. His findings were first proposed in 2007 at the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

Experts say only a fraction of the Sahara desert, probably the size of a small country, would need to be covered to produce enough clean electricity to supply the whole of Europe.

Speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona, Arnulf Jaeger-Waldau of the European commission’s Institute for Energy said it would require the capture of just 0.3% of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle East deserts to meet all of Europe’s energy needs.

The scientists are calling for the creation of a series of huge solar farms – producing electricity either through photovoltaic cells, or by concentrating the sun’s heat to boil water and drive turbines – as part of a plan to share Europe’s renewable energy resources across the continent.

The arguments against renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar center on what critics cite as the inconsistency of these sources. Since wind and sun energy vary with the weather, they cannot be considered as reliable sources for large scale energy needs. Supporters counter that renewable energy supplies would be reliable with sufficient infrastructure in place, allowing solar energy to be collected wherever the sun shines or the wind blows within an energy-sharing region. The consistent supply of sunlight in the Sahara, however, addresses the both these arguments.

In fact, harnessing the Saharan sun would be particularly effective because the sunlight in this area is more intense: solar photovoltaic panels in northern Africa could generate up to three times the electricity compared with similar panels in northern Europe. Sunshine in the Sahara is a constant resource that is rarely blocked by clouds even in the winter.

While the technology for generating electricity under this plan is already within reach, delivering the power presents the greater challenge. A network of high voltage DC transmission lines would be needed to connect countries along the route between northern Africa and northern Europe. Existing infrastructure would need major re-structuring.

Competing interests also pose a challenge to establishing a transmission network through southern Europe. Southern Mediterranean countries including Portugal and Spain have already invested heavily in solar energy, and Algeria aims to export 6,000 megawatts of solar-generated power to Europe by 2020.

There would also likely be opposition from local communities across Europe unhappy about transmission cables installed near their homes. And security and governance challenges persist, especially in countries where the rule of law is weak.

Despite these challenges, Dr Anthony Patt believes harvesting the power of the Sahara is feasible, with £50bn of government investment needed over the next decade to make the scheme a reality. The cost of moving electricity over long distance has come down and private companies, he projects, may be convinced the project is an attractive investment.

Scientists working on the project admit that it would take many years and huge investment to generate enough solar energy from North Africa to power Europe but envisage that by 2050 it could produce 100 GW, more than the combined electricity output from all sources in the UK, with an investment of around €450bn.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, welcomed the proposals: “Assuming it’s cost-effective, a large scale renewable energy grid is just the kind of innovation we need if we’re going to beat climate change.”

Posted in Science and Transportation Tags , ,
  • PC Monitors

    But how damaging would placement of the new infrastructure be to connect 'the whole of Europe' to this giant solar grid? And it isn't really Europe that is the big player in terms of global emissions from households and industry. But taking off the critical cap, it seems to be a step in the right direction and it will stop those 'not on my land' issues people seem to have with wind turbines in Britain's countrysides.

  • Jerry Chan

    Seems like a good idea but by covering that many acres of desert would more than disturb the natural wildlife habitat on the desert, which is a "con" that should not be overlooked in my opinion.

    http://jerrchan.com

  • http://www.internetsvijet.com InternetSvijet

    If only entire world would do similar projects to make energy without having to destroy the planet…I have example, am living in Croatia, the cost, and we have a lot of powerful winds blowing but still we haven't developed Windmills technology to use this as a source :-(

  • http://www.PiyushShekhar.com Piyush Shekhar

    Good initiative for power.

  • http://www.majormedicalhealth.com Major Medical

    Good news for us since Europe and China will be goobling up energy for decades to come.

  • http://www.kme.co.uk/IndustrialRange.html Industrial Monitors

    Yer I see this on the news not long ago. Are they not making it bigger as we speak?

    I think its a great idea and a damn good way to save money and electricity, also its a good use for the land that other wise would not be used at all. Not to mention its a great way to try and help save the enviroment at the same time :)

    Thanks for a great read and I hope you give us more updates on this kick ass job these guys are doing.

  • earth warrior

    I say consider the African nations right around and IN the Sahara Desert to be in even more need of cheap, renewable, clean energy sources. Otherwise it’s just one more case of rich nations taking advantages of the resources located in poor ones.

  • Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe

    there is an " African Network for Solar Energy (ANSOLE)" which was launched on the 4th of February 2011, whose goal to foster the research in solar energy among African scientists. If you are interested in this initiative, please contact the coordinator: daniel_ayuk_mbi.egbe@jku.at

  • Mell

    The
    argument for building solar photovoltaic systems in the Sahara is solid in that photovoltaic
    panels there could potentially generate three times more energy than
    panels in northern Europe. It is estimated that capturing 0.3% of the
    sunlight falling on the desert would meet all of Europe’s needs.

    The major problem is time and of course money. An
    investment of around €450bn would be needed and scientists estimate that
    it would take until 2050 before the project could produce 100 GW which
    is more electricity than all sources of power in the UK combined.

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