The Sahara gets twice as much sunshine annually as most of Europe. The European Union wants to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within a decade. So why not build solar power plants across North Africa and ship the electricity north via power lines under the Mediterranean?
Over the past year, more than 30 European companies have joined the Desertec Industrial Initiative, a consortium that seeks a $560 billion investment in North African solar and wind installations over the next 40 years. The group is completing a feasibility study and hopes to be building its first power plant by 2013. (Right: Desertec proposed map; click for larger image)
A separate group of companies called Transgreen, formed in July, is working on plans for the thousands of miles of high-voltage lines needed. The challenge is immense: Winning agreement from very different countries on two continents to carry out one of the biggest infrastructure projects in history.
Many backers are eager for a share of rich construction contracts. They include engineering outfits such as Germany's Siemens and Swiss-Swedish group ABB and solar companies Abengoa Solar of Spain and First Solar of Arizona. Giant Italian utility Enel wants to rely less on Russian gas, and German insurer Munich Re sees the project as a hedge against damage from global warming. (Abengoa solar project at right)
"We are creating a large network of allies with complementary interests," said Desertec boss Paul van Son, a former Dutch utility executive.
There's little doubt that Sahara sun can power Europe. Cables already carry electricity under the Mediterranean - though the power flows from Spain to Morocco. And after years of false starts, scores of large-scale solar power plants are being built or in advanced planning stages, from the American Southwest to the Mideast.
"There is now a good track record," said Bernd Utz, head of Siemens' renewable energy division.
With the technology the consortium plans to use, solar-powered electricity costs at least four times as much per kilowatt-hour as power from coal- and gas-fired plants, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an analysis group. Governments have used subsidies to support alternate energy companies until their costs are more in line with oil and gas. The United States awarded a $1.45 billion loan guarantee in July to reduce financing costs for the planned Solana power plant in Arizona (right), at 280 megawatts one of the world's largest.
The Sahara project envisions generating capacity equal to almost 400 Solanas. Where would the financing come from? Desertec and Transgreen member companies so far have put up less than $10 million for feasibility studies. They want Europe's governments to require utilities to pay more for Sahara-generated energy, a preferential arrangement that European countries use to spur solar and wind energy development at home.
Trouble is, Germany and Spain are reducing these rates, which the utilities often pass on to customers. The depth of political support in North Africa is another issue. Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt back the project. Algeria wants to develop solar plants on its own. Some European critics, meanwhile, see a case of overreach.
"European countries can develop faster and cheaper than Desertec a renewable energy supply from indigenous sources," said Hermann Scheer, a member of the German Bundestag who heads Eurosolar, a solar research and advocacy group in Bonn.
Even Europe's sunniest regions, though, don't get enough sun to generate power as efficiently as in North Africa, says Abengoa Solar Chief Executive Officer Santiago Seage.
Room for mirrors
The Sahara's ample space is crucial because plans call for fields of mirrors, totaling hundreds of square miles, at more than 20 locations. The mirrors would concentrate the sun's rays to create heat and drive turbines - a technology known as concentrating solar power or CSP, that allows heat to be extracted and stored gradually so electricity is generated continuously. Plans also call for solar photovoltaic and wind turbine generators, whose energy costs less to produce than concentrating solar power but yet don't offer storage capacity.
"For utilities, CSP is a much more robust product," Seage said. (At right)
As the consortium feels its way forward, some European countries could strike bilateral deals with North African suppliers. Morocco, for example, has announced plans to build solar plants for its own use. Because Morocco's government can't afford the subsidies that would make solar power feasible inside its own borders, it might team up with Spain or France to help with financing in exchange for a share of output, suggests Logan Goldie-Scot, a London analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
"The (Desertec) project will happen," he said, but "it's likely to be a series of small projects."
San Francisco Chronicle, "Sahara solar energy could power Europe", accessed September 15, 2010