Europe eyes the desert sun

Vast farms of solar panels in the Sahara could provide clean electricity for the whole of Europe, according to European Union scientists working on a plan to pool the region’s renewable energy.

Harnessing the power of the desert sun is at the centre of an ambitious scheme to build a €45-billion European supergrid that would allow countries across the continent to share electricity from abundant green sources such as wind energy in the United Kingdom and Denmark, and geothermal energy from Iceland and Italy.

The idea is gaining growing political support in Europe with Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy recently backing the north African solar plan.

Speaking last Tuesday 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 provide all of Europe’s energy needs.

Because the sunlight is more intense, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in North Africa could generate up to three times the electricity compared with similar panels in northern Europe.

Conveniently the potential to gene-rate solar energy, either from PV cells or by using it to heat water, is at its highest exactly when there is peak demand. “Between 11am and 1pm — there’s a lot of cooking activities going on, people are going home, air conditioners are used,” said Jaeger-Walden.

The idea of developing solar farms in the Mediterranean region and North Africa was given a boost by Sarkozy earlier this month when he highlighted solar farms in north Africa as a key part of the work of his newly formed Mediterranean Union.

Depending on the size of the grid, building the necessary high-voltage lines across Europe could cost up to €1-billion a year every year till 2050, but Jaeger-Walden pointed out that the figure was small when compared to a recent prediction by the International Energy Agency that the world needs to invest more than $45-trillion in energy systems over the next 30 years.

Much of the cost would come in developing the public grid networks of connecting countries in the southern Mediterranean, which do not currently have the spare capacity to carry the electricity that the north African solar farms could generate.

Scientists working on the project admit that it would take many years and huge investment to generate enough solar energy from north Africa to power Europe, but envisage that by 2050 it could produce 100GW, more than the combined electricity output from all sources in the UK, with an investment of around €450-billion.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, welcomed the proposals: “Assuming it’s cost-effective, a large-scale renewable energy grid is just the kind of innovation we need if we’re going to beat climate change … Tinkering with 20th-century technologies like coal and nuclear simply isn’t going to get us there.”

The vision for the renewable energy grid comes as the commission’s joint research centre (JRC) published its strategic energy technology plan, highlighting solar PV as one of eight technologies that need to be championed for the short- to medium-term future.

“It recognises something extraordinary — if we don’t put together resources and findings across Europe and we let go the several sectors of energy, we will never reach these targets. We need a coordination of research applied to different fields,” said Giovanni de Santi, director of the JRC, also speaking in Barcelona.

The JRC plan includes fuel cells and hydrogen, clean coal, second-generation biofuels, nuclear fusion, wind, nuclear fission and smart grids.

De Santi said it was designed to help Europe meet its commitments to reduce overall energy consumption by 20% by 2020, while reducing CO2; emissions by 20% in the same time and increasing to 20% the proportion of energy generated from renewable sources. —

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