Sometimes called the Saudi Arabia of solar energy, the Sahara could soon be home to dozens of huge solar farms under a new EU supergrid initiative to supply the continent's electricity needs with renewable energy.
The 20 companies aim to sign a memorandum of understanding to found the Desertec Industrial Initiative, which would then commission studies on various projects in North Africa.
Siemens AG, Germany’s biggest engineering company, and Munich Re are holding talks with utilities on developing solar plants in the Sahara desert to supply 15 percent of Europe’s power needs by mid-century.
The German companies want to harness a free fuel source that’s plentiful in one of the world’s poorest regions and sell the power to industrialized Europe.
The plants and transmission lines may cost 400 billion euros ($555 billion) through 2050 and stretch across 130 square kilometers (50 square miles) of the North African desert. Just for reference: Manhattan Island is 58.8 square kilometers (22.7 square miles) in area.
20 gigawatts of concentrated solar power (CSP) - the equivalent of 20 large conventional power plants - could be harvested each year by 2020 if the project got off the ground.
The first power station with a capacity of 2 gigawatts in Tunisia with power lines to Italy would take five years to build once it gets regulatory approval.
A possible long-term project could be a 100 gigawatt solar thermal power station in northern Africa and the Middle East. It could be finalised by 2050 with power lines connecting it to central Europe.
Of the anticipated costs, the power plants would account for about 350 billion euro ($486 billion) while transmission lines to Europe would cost about 50 billion euros ($69 billion).
The project would rely on a technique called "concentrating solar power" (CSP) to generate electricity; a CSP station uses hundreds of huge mirrors covering a vast swathe of land to focus the sun's rays onto a central metal pillar filled with water. The super-hot water, which can reach temperatures as high as 800°C, is then vaporized and channelled off to drive turbines that produce the electricity.
The main reason for favouring CSP over photovoltaics is its ability to supply power on demand for 24 hours a day. PV is more expensive than CSP and needs expensivesystems for storing electricity, such as pumped storage.
Power plants will not only generate electricity that they can sell to Europe. In addition to energy generation, the stations would be used as desalination facilities to provide desert countries with much-needed supplies of fresh water. This scheme is also known as Desertec technology.
The Sahara covers huge parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia. It is one of three distinct physiographic provinces of the African massive physiographic division.
Solar insolation levels are high near equator, and low around Earth's poles. For comparison, consider the average annual insolation levels of these two extreme locations:
* Oslo , Norway = 2.27 kWh/m 2/day (very low)
* Miami , Florida = 5.26 kWh/m 2/day (very high).
In six hours the world's deserts receive more energy than mankind consumes in a year.
Influence of the current financial crisis on this project is yet to be seen, but with governmental financial support of EU countries it is realistic that project will be successful.
Find out more about this project in following video: