As technology improves and the price of solar plummets, a high-profile plan to power all of Europe from the Sahara sun, called EUMENA-DESERTEC, is quickly becoming more realistic.
That was the finding at the three-day Copenhagen Congress, where Anthony Patt of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis informed scientists that the cost of concentrated solar power (CSP) for North Africa is getting on par with alternative technologies. On top of that:
"The cost of moving [electricity] long distances has really come down."
What kind of total investment are we talking about? About $70 billion. That's over 10 years, to be shared among 30 countries or more – not a lot of money, particularly by bailout standards.
For context, the nine leading economies in Europe spent five times that amount – $3.36 trillion – to shore up precarious banks, according to a study by the Independent Strategy of London. For even more perspective, recall the cost of America's AIG rescue: $180 billion so far.
With $70 billion, Patt says, governments could prove the worth of the DESERTEC concept and stimulate private investment that would drive it to completion.
And they wouldn't have to wait long to reap benefits.
Researchers claim if construction begins in 2010, the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could supply Europe's urban consumption markets with 55,000 gigawatt hours of electricity in 10 years' time – enough to meet the needs of 35 million people. By 2050, they could power most of Europe and two-thirds of their own countries, all by using just a fraction of unused Sahara land.
Add a string of wind farms along the North African coast, Patt says, and all of Europe's power needs could be met.
EUMENA-DESERTEC, six years in the works, was developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation (now known as the DESERTEC Foundation), the brain child of the Club of Rome, with support from the German Aerospace Bureau and other influential groups.
The technology behind it, concentrated solar power, is critical to the solar sector's assault on the world of fossil fuels. The good news is that it's commercially available and infinitely scalable.
In Africa, it would look like this: A giant Saharan network of solar mirrors would concentrate sunlight onto receiver tubes that contain water, producing extreme temperatures. The heat would boil the fluid, driving the traditional steam turbines that would churn out exportable clean power.
The Sahara receives some of the most intense solar radiation in the world. That is clearly a huge plus. The distance to Europe is not.
To blunt the challenge of undersea transmission, DESETREC has proposed an HVDC (High-Voltage Direct Current) "Euro-supergrid," designed to integrate with existing and less efficient HVAC transmission lines. Under the scheme, electricity could be transmitted from North Africa to the UK for relatively minimal line losses of 10 percent or less.
Pilot CSP systems are now planned for Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Dubai, Patt says. Libya and Tunisia could also be considered.
His findings were the first of a major research effort. Full conclusions will be presented to governments later this year, although the gist of the research is coming clear: Desert solar is on the cusp of getting a lot cheaper, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, but not exclusively.
The DESERTEC concept, though envisioned for Africa, is applicable to other regions of the world, particularly the Southwestern United States. The region ranks with North Africa and interior Australia as one of the world's three best areas for vast solar farms.
That explains the creation of DESERTEC-USA. The organization was conceived to market the desert solar idea in American circles. Dive into the web site. The case it makes is compelling.
The arid Southwest has the nation's strongest direct normal radiation resources. These are so powerful, experts estimate a solar mirror field roughly 100 miles on a side located in Nevada could theoretically provide ALL of America's electricity.
The MENA nations are on the verge of becoming the Saudi Arabia of solar. And the reason is simple. For governments and investors, the billions it would take to build vast desert solar farms and the accompanying transmission infrastructure are starting to look positively modest, compared to the future benefits of the plan.
Why not the United States?