“The world’s deserts collect more energy from the sun in six hours than mankind consumes in an entire year.” This statement was made by Dr Gerhard Knies, German physicist and founder of the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) network of researchers. It illustrates one of the most ambitious projects of the next decades: the massive exploitation of solar energy from desert areas. What are the prospects for these projects in the Mediterranean region?
The Sahara desert, an ideal location for solar farms
There are three specific advantages that make deserts seem ideal for producing solar power. For one, they enjoy strong direct sunlight for much of the year (3,000 to 3,500 hours of sunlight per year in the Sahara compared with 1,500 hours in Paris). According to a world map produced by NASA in 2007, one of the two sunniest regions in the world is located in the Sahara desert, in Niger, near the fort of Agadem: it receives an average of 6.78 kWh of solar energy per square metre per day. For one square metre, this equates to the average annual consumption of a water heater in an American home. In addition to these high levels of sunlight, the deserts are sparsely populated, making it possible to set up large solar farms. According to the TREC, the entire global demand for electricity could be met by covering a 90,000 km2 area (the size of Australia) with solar panels. Lastly, sand deserts can provide silicon, a raw material that is essential in the production of solar panels.
The European Solar Plan aims to harness the potential of the Southern Mediterranean region
The ideal conditions of the Sahara were of course highlighted with regards to the energy requirements of the Mediterranean region. According to the Mediterranean Energy Observatory (OME) in 2009, the region will have to increase its current production capacity of 424 GW (103 in the south and 321 in the north) by 191 GW (106 in the south and east and 85 in the north).
Solar energy should be high on the priority list of investments, thanks to the Mediterranean Solar Plan in particular. Developed by the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) created in July 2008, the Plan aims, in particular, to increase the capacity to generate low-carbon and essentially solar power by 20 GW in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, and to create interconnection lines that would allow part of the electricity to be exported to the European Union.
Desertec aims to supply 17% of Europe’s electricity requirements by 2050
Within the framework of the UfM, a first project named Desertec plans to install about 100 GW of concentrating solar power plants (a surface area of 2,500 km²) and 20 high-voltage direct current (HVDC) power lines, each with a capacity of 5 GW. Most of the power would be used to supply the producing countries, including the future seawater desalination plants, which are particularly energy-intensive. But eventually, Desertec would also supply up to 17% of Europe’s electricity consumption (700 TWh). The amount of investment required is estimated at approximately 400 billion euros. The project is backed by the Desertec Foundation, which was founded in January 2009 by Dr Gerhard Knies with support from the German association Club of Rome and Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan. The Foundation has created a university network around the project – the Desertec University Network (DUN) – as well as a consortium of private companies responsible for establishing the legal, economic and technical framework of the project by late 2012. Amongst others, this organisation called Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) includes the energy companies ABB, Enel Green Power, E.ON AG, and RWE AG. Morocco was awarded the first Desertec pilot project, which aims to produce approximately 500 MW of solar power starting in 2015/2016. Most of this power would be exported to Europe. The project should receive an investment of 2.1 to 2.3 billion euros.
Medgrid: aiming to transport 5 gigawatts of electricity across the Mediterranean by 2020
Complementing Desertec, the industrial project Transgreen was launched in Paris in July 2010 as a French initiative within the framework of the UfM. The consortium led to the creation of the company named Medgrid in December 2010. Medgrid aims to transmit up to 5 gigawatts of electricity between Northern African and Southern European countries by 2020. Medgrid brings together some twenty industrial companies and regulatory authorities from Spain, Egypt, Italy, Morocco, Germany, Syria, France and Jordan, including French energy giants Alstom, Areva and EDF, the German Siemens, and Spain’s Red Electrica.
It is within this context that, during the 2nd Euro-Mediterranean Energy Efficiency Forum held on 10 and 11 May 2011, the French Minister of Industry, Eric Besson, declared that “in autumn 2011, France and Morocco will launch the first experiment to transport solar power from the south to the north of the Mediterranean.” He added that Medgrid and Desertec should enter into a partnership agreement in the short term.
Using the solar energy generated by deserts is therefore a genuine ambition, which two Euro-Mediterranean projects are attempting to make possible. A third project, the Sahara Solar Breeder Super Apollo Project, hopes to go even further, by making high-purity silicon from Saharan sand and building a long-distance direct current transmission network based on high-temperature superconducting cables, in order to supply, by 2050, half of the electricity consumed by mankind. The project is still in the study phase. The studies are being conducted by several Japanese universities amongst others.