Europe intends to import its first solar generated electricity from North Africa within the next five years, European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said in an interview last month. The European Union is backing projects to turn the plentiful sunlight in the Sahara desert into electricity for Europe, a scheme it hopes will help meet its target of deriving 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The Sahara is the world's largest hot desert. At over 3,600,000 square miles), it covers most of Northern Africa, making it almost as large as Europe or the United States. The desert stretches from the Red Sea, including parts of the Mediterranean coasts, to the outskirts of the Atlantic Ocean. To the south, it is delimited by the Sahel: a belt of semi-arid tropical savanna that comprises the northern region of central and western Sub-Saharan Africa.
The solar potential of Africa is widely known. The continent would have more than enough to satisfy the energy needs of every country within its borders, and could even have some left over. If this is the case, how can this "left over" power be used?
Known as the Desertec Industrial Initiative, the German led consortium of 12 European businesses consists of some of country's biggest engineering and power companies, along with Munich Re, the largest reinsurer in the world. The group aims to provide 15 percent of Europe's electricity by 2050 or earlier via power lines stretching across the desert and Mediterranean Sea.
Speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona last year, Arnulf Jaeger-Waldau of the European commission's Institute for Energy said that the area needed for a solar power plant large enough to power Europe is about the size of Wales or New Jersey (@8,000 square miles). Though this seems large it must be remembered that most of the Sahara is unpopulated and barren.
Of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle East deserts, only 0.3 percent would need to be captured in order to help satisfy Europe's energy needs. The European Union claims the project is a way of beginning to share Europe's renewable energy resources across the globe through the construction of a chain of huge wind and solar farms.
In 2010, solar panels available for customers can have a yield of up to 19%, while commercially available panels can go as far as 27%. A photovoltaic installation in the southern latitudes of Europe or the United States might then be expected to produce about 1 kilowatt-hour/square meter/day.
In the Sahara desert, with less cloud cover and a better solar angle, one can might obtain closer to 8.3 kilowatt-hour/square meter/day.
Oettinger also said all three energy ministers at the meeting in the Algerian capital sent a signal they were willing to build the infrastructure and common market rules needed to allow a trade in renewable electricity with Europe.
He countered concerns expressed in the past by some officials in Algeria that the project could involve Europeans exploiting north Africa's natural resources.
"Renewables are a two way partnership because electricity produced here is for the home market of north African countries," he said.
"Maybe a bigger percentage of the electricity will be exported to Europe but at the same time we have to export the technology, tools, machines, experts, and so it's a real partnership, not only a partnership by selling and by buying."
By. Andy Soos of Environmental News Network