On 13 July a consortium of 12 companies, including Siemens, ABB, Deutsche Bank, E.ON and RWE, agreed to move forward with Desertec – a €400 billion project to build a solar hub in the Sahara and transmit the power to Europe.

A plan to build a vast array of solar collectors in the Sahara desert in order to transmit electricity to Europe may, to some, be the stuff of science fiction dreams of yore, like jet packs, ray guns and butler robots. The Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) is very much a genuine prospect.

For an investment of €400 billion ($562m) over 30 years, or €13 billion a year, Desertec could potentially power up to 15 per cent of Europe’s power needs plus two-thirds of the MENA countries by 2050, while dramatically cutting C02 emissions at the same time.

The Desertec Industrial Initiative aims to build what amounts to a 100 GW solar power plant in the Sahara and transmit the power to Europe. Image courtesy Desertec
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On 13 July, twelve companies including Siemens, ABB, E.ON and RWE, agreed to move forward with plans to build a 6500 square mile concentrated solar power (CSP) hub – effectively a 100 GW solar power plant – in North Africa. The consortium, which also includes Deutsche Bank, Munich Re, M+W Zander, Spain’s Abengoa Solar and the Algerian conglomerate Cevital, signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish DII by 31 October, with spending plans to be released within the next three years.

Desertec was initially conceived by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation, the brainchild of the Club of Rome, with support from the German Aerospace Bureau, with an original goal of finding an alternative to importing Russian gas. With 630 000 terawatt-hours/year falling unused on the deserts of the so-called MENA states of the Middle East and North Africa, it is not difficult to see the attraction of a project. In contrast, Europe consumes just 4000 terawatt-hours/year – a mere 0.6 per cent of that unused desert solar energy.

The solar energy could even be harnessed even at night; excess heat produced during the day can be stored for several hours in tanks of molten salt. This way the turbines can produce electricity even when the sun is not shining. Additionally, MENA countries could harness residual heat to power seawater desalination plants, which would provide drinking water in large quantities, while shaded areas under the mirrors of CSP plants are may be used for horticulture.

The big drawback with the project, of course, is the long distance, around 3000 km, between the source of the solar energy and its ultimate destination. To cut long distance transmission losses, the DII propose to build a ‘supergrid’ of high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines, projected to cost €50 billion.

The DII says that, with HVDC transmission, losses are about three per cent per 1000 km, not including AC/DC conversion losses. Taking both of these into account, DII expects that electricity could be transmitted from North Africa to the UK – a distance of more than 300 km – with less than ten per cent loss of power.

The news has caused a big stir in Germany, receiving front-page coverage and leading news broadcasts across the major networks. Several commentators likened the project to the moon landing, such is its scope. It is perhaps easy to get carried away, but as yet just one-quarter of one per cent of the required funding has been confirmed – €1bn from the European Union – although another €4bn is currently being sought. Moreover, important details, such as where the solar hub would be installed, have yet to be worked out.

However, it is easy to see why Germany is excited by the project. It would produce low-carbon electricity and create an estimated 240 000 jobs. The project is also a vindication for the far-sightedness of the German solar industry and its government’s commitment to renewable energy.