Europeans Look to Deserts for Future of Power

Europeans Look to Deserts for Future of Power

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News & Events - Engineering News

December 12, 2011

The world faces a substantial challenge providing for the growing energy needs of developed and developing nations while also seeking to prevent any long-term damage from climate change. The Guardian notes one Germany-based group hopes to address the problem by harnessing the other of the desert's resources.

Areas like the Middle East and North Africa have traditionally been best known for their substantial oil reserves. But in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, Germany particle physicist Gerhard Knies did some rough estimates and noted that these desert regions also offer massive solar power resources. All told, Knies figured around six hours-worth of energy from the world's deserts could power the world for about one year.

Nearly three decades after this revelation, Knies has pulled together a consortium of business interests to create the Desertec Industrial Initiative. With more than $550 billion in funding, according to The Wall Street Journal, Desertec hopes to establish enough large-scale solar thermal power plants throughout the deserts of the North Africa to provide more than 15 percent of Europe's energy needs by 2050.

Already the group has set in motion its plans for a 500-megawatt solar power plant in southern Morocco, near the city of Ouarzazate. Covering around 12 square kilometers, the project will provide electricity to both Morocco and Europe, through the underwater transmission cable to Spain, which the country already plans to expand, according to the Journal.

Desertec plans further underwater transmission wires stretching across the Mediterranean, using specially designed cables that can transmit direct current power with little loss of energy.

The project presents its own substantial challenges of course, with the declining, but still high costs of solar among the less difficult. Germany has committed to greater renewables in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, deciding to shutter its own nuclear power plants early, but some Germans worry about the cost of supporting a project as far away as Libya or Morocco.

Local residents are equally skeptical, with some concerned about a new solar colonialism, of sorts, wherein Europe harvest solar energy without substantial benefits to the local population. However, Desertec's chief executive, Paul van Son, insists most groups have come to understand the potential benefits of such a project.

Reuters notes that the recent unrest in Libya has delayed some of Desertec's plans, but that the long-term prospects remain strong regardless of any concerns raised by the conflict.

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