Out of Africa: A Grand Plan for Powering Europe Via the Sun

Global-warming prophets warn of a world becoming more desert-like, but, ironically, a measure of salvation from that future just might come from one of the world’s greatest deserts.

Europe is considering plans to spend more than 5 billion English pounds – about $10.3 billion – to build a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East, reports London’s Guardian newspaper. 

More than a hundred of the generators, each fitted with thousands of huge mirrors, would generate electricity to be transmitted by undersea cable to Europe and then distributed across the continent to European Union member nations, including Britain. Billions of watts of power could be generated this way, enough to provide Europe with a sixth of its electricity needs and to allow it to make significant cuts in its carbon emissions. At the same time, the stations would be used as desalination plants to provide desert countries with desperately needed supplies of fresh water.

The project is amazing in its proposed scope, and has the backing of Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, who last week presented details of project – named Desertec – to the European Parliament.

‘Countries with deserts, countries with high energy demand, and countries with technology competence must co-operate,’ he told MEPs. The project has been developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation and is supported by engineers and politicians in Europe as well as Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan and other nations in the Middle East and Africa.

Here’s bin Talal’s white paper on the project.

In addition to solar power, Desertec would include not only solar power but wind – with wind-energy turbines located along the southern Mediterranean coast – as well as generation of hydro, biomass and geothermal power. It would supply power not only to Europe but also to the Middle East and North Africa.

This is the kind of big-idea thinking that the world is going to need more of. If such a project can work in the Mediterranean region, why is there no similarly ambitious plan at least being discussed to tap the enormous solar power and wind-power potential of such regions as the American desert southwest and parts of northern Mexico?

One reason may be cost. The Guardian story admits that the cost of power generated by the project would, at present realities, be about double what Europe now pays for power from coal. But the cost realities are changing. And cost isn’t the only factor to be considered.

The Desertec solar collectors would use a design called “concentrating solar power,”  in which banks of several hundred giant mirrors covering large areas of land, around a square kilometre, are set to focus the sun’s rays onto a central metal pillar filled with water, heating the water inside to to 800 degrees Celsius. The water vaporises into superhot steam which drives turbines that generate electricity.

Desertec envisions a thousand such solar power stations being built along the Mediterranean coast of northern Africa the Middle East, generating up to 100 billion watts of power, some of which would be exported to Europe via undersea cables. (For comparison, Britain’s total electricity generating capacity is 12 billion watts.)

In addition to power, the system would produce fresh water:

The superheated steam, after it has driven the plant’s turbines, would then be piped through tanks of sea water which would boil and evaporate. Steam from the sea water would piped away and condensed and stored as fresh water.

“Essentially you get electricity and fresh water,” said physicist Gerhard Knies, co-founder of the project. “The latter is going to be crucial for developing countries round the southern Mediterranean and in north Africa. Their populations are rising rapidly, but they have limited supplies of fresh water. Our solar power plants will not only generate electricity that they can sell to Europe, they will supply drinkable water that will sustain their thirsty populations.”

Could not a similar project simultanously benefit the United States and, say, Mexico?

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