Europe's Plan to Draw Solar Power From the Sahara Moves Ahead

By Eliza Strickland | November 2, 2009 11:15 am

DesertecWhen European Union officials first discussed the idea of a massive solar power plant in the Sahara to provide power to all of Europe, many people took it as a thought experiment, a plan that was far too outlandish to ever come to pass. But now a band of alternative energy companies have announced the formation of a consortium dedicated to pushing the project ahead.

The Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) aims to provide 15% of Europe’s electricity by 2050 or earlier via power lines stretching across the desert and Mediterranean sea. The German-led consortium was brought together by Munich Re, the world’s biggest reinsurer, and consists of some of country’s biggest engineering and power companies [The Guardian].

The $400 billion project calls for building enormous solar power plants in the sun-drenched Sahara, and using new high voltage direct current cables that can efficiently transport electricity over long distances to bring the power to Europe. The power stations would use concentrated solar power, in which mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays on a fluid container. The super-heated liquid then drives turbines to generate electricity. The advantage over solar photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight directly to electricity, is that if sufficient hot fluid is stored in containers, the generators can run all night [The Guardian].

The countries of the northern Sahara–Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia–are said to be interested in the project, although their governments are expected to insist that a portion of the clean energy remains in Africa and is allotted to their own countries. Meanwhile, the project’s backers say they’ll need evidence that the project won’t suffer due to local political instability or terrorism threats. But if all the players can agree on a way forward, the first solar thermal power station could be built in the desert by 2015.

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Image: Desertec Foundation

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • seth

    More dogma from priests of the new age “renewable” religion.

    $400 billion for 100 gigawatts at 30% efficiency (desert at that latitude, nighttime,winter,clouds, sandstorms) works out to $13000 per kw. Current nuclear costs are coming in a less than $2000 per kw and new indian reactors and projected mass produced nuclear is less than $1000 a kw.

    Germany has already wasted 10 years and $100 billion dollars on solar/wind and has not reduced its greenhouse emissions one iota. It solar costs are coming in at $82000 a kw.To help with its new found addiction to Russian gas, it is planning a massive build of dirty coal plants to meet its baseload power requirements.

    The American nuclear industry with a $2.5 trillion investment in American nuclear power, paid for by quickly weaning us off the $1 trillion the US spends annually on fossil fuels could with a World War Two scale effort here and abroad save us – a three year payback period.

    With modern efficient generation 3.5 reactors able to use reprocessed and thorium fuels, a huge eighty year current supply of natural uranium and orders of magnitude more efficient fast breeder reactors like Sandia and Toshiba’s new designs there is sufficient nuclear fission fuel to last hundreds of years. Thorium is five times as abundant as uranium. Old generation nuclear waste is used as fuel for gen Iv reactors eliminating the waste problem.

    So far the Obama administration is going slow on nuclear with some improvements at the Nuclear Rejection Commission and loan guarantees putting 25 gigawatts of American nukes into the planning stages. With all the big bucks going into wind, solar, carbon capture, and geothermal, almost no research is being done with promising new technologies like Idaho National Laboratories 10 year completed design for a GenIV reactor, Sandias Right Reactor, Bill Gates Terrapower and the ultimate LFTR all which could be producing commercial power within the five to ten year framework. Ten years from now extremely low cost fusion technologies like the Polywell, Focus and TriAlpha designs barely attract a dime in government research funds.

    The conversion from fossil fuel to nuclear is cheap and with the current recession the industrial capacity is there. It eliminates our air pollution, creates a huge employment boosting domestic and export industry, and makes our economy far more competitive than the Europe’s. Even the deniers here would go for it. We can do this.

    India has plans for 450 gigawatts of nukes and is dumping beaucoup bucks into nuclear research. It is a mostly English speaking nation with more university graduates than the US and the difference is growing exponentially. Do we really want to give them a ten to one minimum advantage in power cost by continuing on this renewable dead end..

    Wind and solar are the fuzzy/wuzzies and sunbeams of the energy industry, they make you feel warm and righteous while dancing us down the road to the as little as ten years away climate driven economic and even civilization collapse.

    Sadly the current crop of politicians driven by Big Oil campaign donations and converts to the “renewable” religion seem determined to drive us over the precipice.

  • badnicolez

    Seth is right, nuclear is the answer to our energy woes, but the NIMBYs and enviro-extremists send every proposed reactor into judicial limbo with lawsuits up the wazoo.

    I am all in favor of transitioning to electric vehicles, too, but that’s not going to be feasable until electricity is cheap and plentiful from nuclear sources.

    Yes, it is true that us global warming/climate change “deniers” wholeheartedly support nuclear, especially because it would wean us from the teat of foreign oil that funds Islamic extremism, and help immunize our economy to “peak oil” panics (coming soon) and wacky oil speculators (already here).

    Before the gratuitous attacks begin, let me clarify that I don’t deny the planet is warming, I just don’t think it will be as dramatic and catastrophic as we are being led (like sheep) to believe by the media and others. There may actually be some tangible benefits in some areas, like expanded growing seasons and ranges. Either way, we will adapt, just as we always do.

    I also think we have more important battles on which to spend our time and money, such as increasing nuclear power, traveling back to the moon, getting to Mars and beyond, cleaning up pollution and garbage, banning estrogen-mimic chemicals, creating clean water supplies for the third world, and battling disease and hunger.

    The “solar shield” crowd especially scares the bejesus out of me. What happens when we blow all of this crap up into the atmosphere, then a really large volcano blows? Little Ice Age II and (ten, hundred, more?) million people starve to death. The risk-to-reward ratio on that idea is very low indeed, IMHO.

  • Your Future

    What a f***ing waste of money. Polywell and other low-cost high-return fusion projects have way more bang for the buck. Taxpayer buck, taxpayer’s money being stolen by f***ing useless boondoggles like ITER and these ridiculously inefficient solar energy projects.

    [Moderator’s note: edited out the cuss words.]

  • Robert Hargraves

    So far three out of three comments see nuclear power as an overlooked alternative. One example is the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, which uses inexhaustible thorium to make safe, clean energy at a cost less than that of burning coal. For more information on the technology and social benefits, please see, and

  • nerfer

    Europe already gets a large part of its energy from nuclear, that won’t change quickly. But no nuclear plant has been built and operated without government support, I don’t think the economics are as compelling as some would have us believe (ten-to-one price advantage??).
    I’m not necessarily opposed to nuclear, but we need an objective look at all costs, including uranium mining and storage of radioactive materials.
    Solar thermal is better at this scale than photovoltaic because you eliminate the need for back-up base power for night/cloudy weather. Geothermal is another power source that is really overlooked, IMO, particularly for the western U.S. but may not be effective for Europe.

    There is no one-source answer for our future energy needs. A diversity of sources will be needed, and perhaps sooner than we think, as our supply of cheap oil has essentially run out.

  • Brian Too

    I’d never tell Europe to abandon any promising energy source. My guess is that almost any new/expanded energy source is better than shipping megabucks to the Middle East, only to trade them for suicide bombers.

    Even if the outcome is a somewhat expensive energy alternative that keeps the Middle East honest and competitive it has some value.

    However I’ve got to question the stability of the countries involved. Morocco and Egypt aren’t too bad. I don’t know that I’d be dropping $400 billion (or any significant fraction thereof) on Algeria and Tunisia though.

  • carl granholm

    Another use for solar-thermal installations in the Sahara would be in the production of liquid fuel to be transported to population centers via ships and pipeline (including existing petroleum lines). This fuel would be NH3 (liquid anhydrous ammonia) with the hydrogen produced using a water decomposing thermal input sulfur-iodine cycle (other H2 generating cycles are also possible as well as standard water or steam electrolysis), nitrogen (N2) comes from air separation techniques, NH3 is generated via a Haber–Bosch (catalytic) process. Liquefying ammonia is simple and efficient. At its terminus; NH3 can be combusted, decomposed to N2 & H2 for a fuel-cell or directly to a (in development) NH3 to electricity fuel-cell.

  • Tyler Jordan

    Fission is a bad route, even with the new reactors, government will insist on regulating them to such a point that the costs will remain very high per kw.

    Small Proton-Boron fusion reactors are the way forward and of those attempts polywell is making real progress. By the time they build that solar farm in the desert, there will be a factory making polywell reactors producing power more cheaply than coal.

    Dr. Bussard has saved humanity. Too bad he didn’t live to see it.

  • solar panel enthusiast

    If consider the real total consequences of burning coal, oil, natural gas and using nuclear for generating electricity we will see that solar is actually cheaper.

    Just consider – who is going to pay for the the damages coal mining and burning is causing?

    Coal seams cheap because some people are allowed to make money out of mining it and burning it and other people (all taxpayers) need to chip in for the clean up. And true clean up is not even possible.

    OK, leave alone the destroyed mountains, forests, rivers and valleys. May be some of us will be emotional about the animals, some not. What about the poisoned water and soil, food? What about the additional poisoning from burning it – air pollution?

    That directly affects something even the ones least emotional about environment. It’s poisoning us and our children and their children.

    Oil – we have to be blind not to see the non-factored cost of ocean pollution (are you not getting sick watching ocean spills?), pollution of air from burning it. Again what we pay for oil does not include (leave alone the damaged nature) the medical bill for the health effect that is having.

    What about actual deaths directly caused in sourcing coal and oil and because of pollution. Medical bills at least have a price. What is the price for people dying?

    Nuclear – who is picking up the bill for incidents? Who is picking up the bill for increased security troubles? Why are we saying nuclear is clean and then dumping nuclear waste overseas? How arrogant and thick skinned is that? Just looking for more ways to make people overseas hate America? “Yeah. We make electricity in a clean way. We dump the poison to you.”

    Even if solar is more expensive (I doubt it if we consider the damaging effects of oil, coal and nuclear) why do we have to go with the cheapest solution?

    Are we driving the cheapest cars? Are we living in the cheapest houses? Are we using the cheapest education for our children. Do we have the cheapest doctors and hospitals in the world? Are we eating the cheapest food available?


    We drive the cars that make sense for the particular need, and yes they have to be safe for the purpose. Same with electricity generation. We should not chose the cheapest.

    We do not live in the cheapest homes.

    We spend quite a lot of money on education. Why should we pay the education of people through high school? It cheaper to let every one educate themselves. No. Bingo! We do something that makes sense and is of strategic value to the country. Man! We can do that with energy – can’t we?

    Why should we have these expensive doctors and hospitals. There are countries spending much less on doctors, hospitals, medical research. Can we not do the same to save money. No. But we are healthier if we spend these money. Heloooooo! Is it not the same we have to do with energy generation? Spend money on making it non-toxic.

    Solar is not only cheaper all things considered, it makes sense and it makes us safer and healthier even if it is more expensive.

    Figure it out guys! Moroccans have already. Read the news!

  • Laurie Martin

    Nice post thanks for sharing it with us..i think the future lies on these kind of energies and I think this is the first step moving towards the future..

  • x1800xl

    Status Quo. People like the comfort of repetition. Besides, most people don’t like all the work change involves.

    Peak oil – over dramatized. Plenty of natural gas, coal and even oil, just far deeper and thus 10-100x more expensive.

    Current Uranium nuclear industry.
    Dig up millions of tons of rock. Get a thousand tons of Uranium. Enrich to get 35 tons of fuel. Use once for 18-24 months “using up” about 1 ton of it, and throw out the rest. Waste and inefficient. It was never meant to be a long term solution.

    1. do the same – ie more coal, more oil, more old nuclear.
    2. wind/solar – intermittent, expensive to construct and maintain (ie who will clean and repair a million solar panels in the desert?)
    3. fussion – 50 years and still “almost there”. Requires cutting edge technology, and very large facility.
    4. LFTR. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor
    – they already built prototypes in 50’s – proven to work
    – thorium is abundant and cheap. Can build anywhere.
    – reactor design is simple, closed fuel cycle with just 3% waste and easily scalable from tiny to huge power plant.
    – high temperate, most efficient of ALL systems. Can use to make Hydrogen.
    – super safe. no pressure. no explosion. and even very good at load following.
    – its like a pot of hot coffee. no meltdown since already liquid. cant explode since no pressure. if it escapes it quickly cools from cold surroundings. if somebody puts hands inside, they get burned. its perfect!

    It is the only energy source remotely close to solving our issues. But there’s a catch.
    – environmentalists scream bloody murder at anything “nuclear”
    – everybody already invested millions to support coal, wind, nuclear… no financial or political backing.
    – its different and nobody knows about it. And it would take 5-7 years to relearn and recreate the 50’s designs and build commercial plants.

  • Calamity Jean

    Brian Too said: “However I’ve got to question the stability of the countries involved. Morocco and Egypt aren’t too bad. I don’t know that I’d be dropping $400 billion (or any significant fraction thereof) on Algeria and Tunisia though.”

    OTOH, much instability is caused by poverty. Could adding a significant amount of not-to-expensive electric power improve the economies of the Saharan nations involved? Probably. DII would do well to be generous with the power, and especially to give the initial supply to the host countries.

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