A Solar Power Plant in the Sahara Could Power All of Europe

By Eliza Strickland | July 23, 2008 2:39 pm

Sahara dune desertEuropean Union officials say they’re considering an ambitious plan to draw energy from the sun that beats down relentlessly on the Sahara. By building a solar power plant the size of Wales (a small area, compared to the vastness of the Sahara) and laying down high-voltage transmission cables, the EU could potentially capture enough clean energy to power the entire continent.

Speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona, Arnulf Jaeger-Walden of the European commission’s Institute for Energy, said it would require the capture of just 0.3% of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle East deserts to meet all of Europe’s energy needs [The Guardian]. It’s more efficient to build such a system in the desert, officials say, because the intense sunlight of North Africa can produce three times more electricity than a similar set-up in Northern Europe.

The solar farms would produce electricity either through photovoltaic cells, or by concentrating the intense desert heat to boil water and drive turbines. This, along with power from other renewable sources, such as wind or geothermal, would be fed into a 5,000-mile electricity supergrid, stretching from Siberia to Morocco and Egypt to Iceland [Telegraph]. The plan comes with a high pricetag–the supergrid alone is estimated to cost $70 billion–but it would help the EU meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020.

This supergrid proposal has the support of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and supporters say the massive project would trump the unpredictability of the weather, which is often mentioned as a deterrent to relying on solar and wind energy. The wind would always be blowing somewhere, supporters say, and the sun shines on the Sahara pretty regularly.

Image: flickr/mtsrs

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
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  • http://p2solar.com Max Fortres

    How about putting solar panels on the roofs of homes and businesses in Europe and skipping the $70 billion for the super grid. The 5000 mile Super grid would waste more energy than it supplies through resistance. Then the Africans can use their own resources for themselves and create something wonderful in the desert.

    Sarkozy and Brown only want something they can put a meter on. Nikolas Tesla had developed a way to create and transmit electricity wirelessly for free. Without $70 billion super grids. When JP Morgan found out that it was for free power, he scrapped the plan. Tesla had discovered a way to tap into the energy created by the rotation of the earth. He also invented radio, television, fax machines, AC power, AC electric motors and built the power plant at Niagara Falls. His plans for free electric power are still available if Sarkozy, Brown and Bush are really interested in making the world a better place. No, I guess not.

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  • Jef

    How about placing a powerplant the size of Wales in the Sahara to power the entire continent of AFRICA? This is another example of putting the machinery that makes all of the rich white people’s nice things work in the place where the poor black people live. What kind of compensation are they proposing? Who will build and operate it? If it goes how these things generally do, the only Tuareg there will be either cleaning the floors or parked in the lot.

  • What?

    @the Tesla fanboy

    First, I hope you’re joking about the PV panels on rooftops. The solar insolation and the fact that its not sunny every single day rule out that idea instantaneously, you’d never be able to generate enough power that way…but i assume you were being sarcastic..

    Next, the idea behind the supergrid is HVDC, which doesn’t bleed power through resistance like HVAC, which makes it economically feasible for long distance transmission, its already in use around the world, for applications such as power transmission from offshore wind farms.

    This isn’t just some crazy idea some politicians came up with, there are a number of scientific studies that point to this as the most effective means of solving Europe’s energy issues. Many publications from the German DLR speak to the feasibility of this idea; the proposal is well researched and documented. Regardless of the political aims, this was an idea grounded in research and scientific investigation, not fanfare and politicking.


  • http://www.terrawatts.com Michael P.

    There is a new world wide web emerging right before our eyes.

    It is a global energy network and, like the internet, it will change our culture, society and how we do business. More importantly, it will alter how we use, transform and exchange energy.

    Enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year.

    There is no energy supply problem, there is an energy distribution problem — and the emerging solution is a new world wide web of electricity.

    For more information, see http://www.terrawatts.com

  • Rose

    This all sounds fascinating and technologically feasible on the information given, but I do have some questions:

    1. What would the environmental impact on the Sahara ecosystem be? Is this a case of “looking at the big picture” at the expense of the local one?

    2. What safeguards would “Europe” be planning to put in place to avoid the solar power plant being used as a pawn in a political game? I have this awful vision of Europe being held to ransom by some group or other. I have an equally awful picture of the lengths the European Union would go to ensure that that did not happen.

    3. As far as I know there are a dozen countries with sovereignty over the desert. I’m sure some would be more amenable than others to allowing this installation to be built on their territory but would they be so happy to allow Europe to provide security for it? It sounds like an army of occupation would be needed and therein lies madness… potentially, anyway.

    4. Final point: like another commentator I see something inherently distasteful in the proposal as laid out – there is an “I’m all right, Jack” element to this. What do others think would be a suitable “return” for the countries who did agree to host this scheme?

  • David Adams

    The sun, from 90,000,000 miles away provides enough enerfy to power the entire European civilization – and yet is not a factor in ‘global warming’?
    Why can’t the same ‘solar array’ power all of North Africa? After all the Sahara does not belong to Europe.

  • Alan Keran

    Why couldn’t an agreement be reached with the African union and the north African nations who hold sovereignty in the area to provide power north and south.
    It would have obvious economic benefits for both with the added humanitarian benefits for Africa.
    Any agreement of the sort over a shared power arrangement would surely eliminate the possibility of the project being used as a political pawn and would represent a far sounder investment of foreign aid assistance to the future sustainable development of Africa as a whole.

  • Randy

    What happens at night? Assuming you can provide enough electrical energy during the day, to take care of needs, and store enough in some form, to continue supply at night, what happens when sunlight is gone for 3 days??? I hope they don’t put all their eggs in this basket.

  • Brian

    What about Geo-Thermal energy? Isnt it true that the deeper you go into the Earth’s crust, the hotter it gets? Why not spend that money on developing a factory that produces geothermal rigs designed to be placed in the oceans all around the world. Unlimited Water + Unlimited Heat = Unlimited Energy. Minimizing impact on the environment and still ‘Not Free’ as maintanence and development would not meet it’s apex for centuries. Which ever country builds these could be the new Saudia Arabia plundering the wealth of the world. Please, someone tell me, what is the average depth needed to boil water?

  • http://www.solarfeeds.com scott w
  • Bob of Alameda CA


    “what about night” and “what about 3 days of little sunlight?”. E-storage is trivial on such small scales. Compressed air in unused mines. Lifting coastal seawater to artificial reservoirs a few hundred meters up coastal valleys when the terrain allows … trivial. 90% energy recovery too.

    “supergrid will lose more to resistance”. Nope. Just use more aluminum in the wires. Resistance (and corona discharge) are easiest things to cut: higher voltages, thicker wires, better insulation.

    “geothermal” – is very expensive to drill down far enough (except for Iceland) to get reasonably high temps.

    “wind” is capricious, to be sure. But it is also quite powerful, especially in the desert. Reread the “storage is easy” argument.

    Further, remind yourself that countries such as Germany, France, England, Italy, Spain … are heavily “baseline” powered by nuclear energy. That’s not going to change – indeed, it is being expanded.

    In essence, ALL the arguments against wind-and-solar having to do either with duty-cycle (daytime only) or capriciousness (wind) are settled by another reality: instead of trying to load-average as is current practice over the course of the day (with optional things done at night, including heavy industry), “following the sun” is just as practical, where one concentrates energy usage TOWARD the middle of the day. People would be encouraged (not discouraged) to run air-conditioners, washing machines, car-rechargers (huge), and industry would be encouraged to do all its heavy electriciy use in the day. It is thought that 100% of the “baseline” of Europe could be satisfied with 50% of its current nukes, the balance made up by wind – if done this way.

    I tire of the whining about being unable to store the energy. Let’s just use it when its available! No harder “imposition” than trying to load-average as is the current fad toward the wee hours of the night.


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  • shameonyou

    How interesting that this article fails to mention the actual people in whose countries this plant would be placed in, and what they might think of this wonderful plan. They don’t count according to the author of this article nor apparently do their leaders have any say in the matter. Apparently Sarkozy and Gordon Brown get to decide what will happen in these foreign country on another continent.
    Disgusting neocolonial racists! Your time of leeching the resources of oppressed people all around the world is coming to an end. Be assured of that.

  • http://www.castlesteps.com Jane Carter

    It was obvious thirty years ago that the Sahara Desert could supply all the solar power the world needs. Our hotel in Prague uses vast quantities of gas and electricity: it would be enormously helpful if we could use solar power, but unfortunately the weather isn’t consistent enough.

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  • http://www.youtube.com/msmtruther Ken Howard

    Written By: Ken Howard

    Hey Friends & Countrymen!

    This report isn’t just about SOLAR POWER, it’s about a PROVEN, EXISTING, Power Plant Technology already in Commercial Use in Spain that requires NO Hydrocarbon Fuels of ANY type, NO NUCLEAR Fuel, or ANY type of current Fuels that we use in other types of Power Plants, and the best part is, it emits ZERO POLLUTANTS & ZERO WASTE, it’s called a RADIANT THERMAL SOLAR ENERGY TOWER POWER PLANT, and it works even when there is NO SUN!


    A 200-megawatt Solar Tower would cost about a billion dollars to build, and the Solar Tower would generate enough electricity for 200,000 homes 24 x 7, 365 Days Per Year!. It looks like a giant smokestack, however, it releases ZERO noxious fumes; no NOX, no CO2 and NO other by products of combustion or Hazardous waste.

    According to a 2005 industry report, this would imply about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is roughly a third of the cost of electricity generated from all other current solar cell technology and roughly the same cost to build as conventionally fueled Power Plants such as Coal, Gas or Oil and a fraction of what a Nuclear Plant cost to build and OPERATE!

    Translation; this means that this PROVEN “Large Scale” Power Generation technology beats all other Power Generation “HANDS DOWN” from EVERY SINGLE ANGLE that we annalyzed it from!


    Solar Tower DELIVERS 100% POWER IN RAIN, SHINE or NIGHT! http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=sOtLOcsVO8g

    SOLAR ENERGY TOWER, Madrid Spain: Works Night & Day! http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=XCGVTYtJEFk


    Solar Tower Energy: Works Night & Day! http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=0tWlP0knKQU

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  • http://www.google.com Jacob

    this is a good idea just one problem what side of the sahara and how far into the desert and one question who is funding this project?

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  • lola

    you didn’t give me any of the info that i was asking for! this is a very, very, very bad website!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Hey, Lola — sorry you’re disappointed in us. But you might note that this blog post was published in July, and it’s now December. I’d pretty much moved on. However, if you tell me which of the above questions came from you, I’ll endeavor to answer them.

  • http://www.free-motor.org MichalMartinu

    To connect serially photovoltaic cells to get 360000 Volts and to lead this voltage directly to Tesla transmiters to charge athmosphere and to power wirelessly real autos (Edwin Gray engines) in the Europa.
    The small REAL autos COMPUTER CONTROLED powered by fuelless engines from
    the Earth electrostatic charge charged by SOLAR plant in Sahara with TESLA transmiters…
    Navigated by satelite by GALILEO better then GPS, SENSORS and cameras.
    To call auto by mobile GSM set the destination
    and push the button for two persons.
    If more person is needed to transport, call more autos.
    Then whole lenght of paths can be minimalized.
    By mobile could be called the nearest FREE auto.
    No watter boil and steam turbines are needed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I think, it is, what we need – clean Europa.

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  • http://ShalvaTzivion Shalva Tzivion

    [Moderator’s note: this post has been deleted. This is not a forum for very, very long research proposals, but rather a place for relevant comments and conversation.]

  • Lontana Tazui

    After many european countries have substantially drained resources out of africa, after the same countries have contributed in supporting dictatorship in many african countries and contributed to dismantel the social tissues and the cultures in africa to make africa a continent of prostitutes, drugpushers, reckless people etc… the same countries have turned to Asia to build strong economical partnerships for sustainable development…the same countries are closing their borders to africans seeking to make a better living. This project seems to be in line with the european concept for africa (as perceived) europe aims at destroying the mother continent africa …Is the project part of the european ethics?
    Multibillion spent in a project which environmental impact has not been assessed in a place where people can’t even afford well water to drink and all this to satisfy the over-disproportionated need for energy of a few priviledged. Do you ever ask yourself why there is so much anger expressing itself in different forms in the world? face it- This is not ethical unless as usual we in europe make the rules fit the game. I predict that one day the people of the earth will speak up!We must admit that the model we have based our theories on have failed.

  • http://none messenger

    shameonyou Says:
    August 6th, 2008 at 11:43 am

    “How interesting that this article fails to mention the actual people in whose countries this plant would be placed in, and what they might think of this wonderful plan. They don’t count according to the author of this article nor apparently do their leaders have any say in the matter. Apparently Sarkozy and Gordon Brown get to decide what will happen in these foreign country on another continent.
    Disgusting neocolonial racists! Your time of leeching the resources of oppressed people all around the world is coming to an end. Be assured of that.”

    Oh I’m sure that the African people would deeply miss their beloved heaps of Sahara sand that would be covered by the hypothetical solar power plants. Surely people from all over the continent go there for holidays.
    And just think of all the sun rays leeched by the disgusting European colonialists! The solar radiation currently absorbed by the Sahara sand is so beneficial to the multitudes of the Sahara inhabitants!

    Anyhow, please don’t be ridiculous if you can help it. Sure, the stuff is leeched from Africa like hell. But to apply that to solar radiation and sand? Anyway you don’t really think that Sarky&Brown are going to Sahara with an army to occupy an area the size of Wales at the location of their choice?

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  • b williams

    If the cost figures are even remotly realistic, 70 billion for thr transmission lines alone (hvdc, yes!) then could we use 700 billion as a total figure? If so then the U.S. could have done the same with the 1TRILLION dollar stimulus package. It would have created immediate employment for every available worker if you include manufacturing, delivery of goods, material supply, etc. We have our own Sahara right here! I have spouted this since the inception of the stimulus bill, but who cares?

  • Roger

    How would the system be secured from attack? It would be an enticing target — take the plant out and you wipe out electricity for all of Europe!

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