Solar energy from the sand – a snip at €400bn

Ever since Europeans began exploring (and colonising) the roasting deserts of north Africa, esoteric-minds have pondered ways of using all that heat and sunlight for something other than producing sweat.

According to Tuesday’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung a consortium of 20 companies, among them Siemens, Deutsche Bank and Munich RE, believe that European consumers could one day swap diminishing fossil fuel supplies for electricity generated from the searing Saharan sun.

The concept is certainly seductive. In just six hours the world’s deserts receive more energy than the world’s population consumes in a year.  And, as luck would have it around 90 per cent of the world’s inhabitants live within 3,000km of a desert.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that scientists say hundreds of north African “Concentrating Solar Power” (CSP) plants – each generating intense heat through sunlight focused by lenses or mirrors – could by 2050 supply about 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity needs.

But covering the North African desert with mirrors, stringing high-voltage direct-current transmission cables across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and connecting these to a new high-efficiency European super-grid, does not come cheaply.

A study by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and funded by the German environment ministry, put the total cost of the project at €395bn; the powerlines alone would cost €45bn.

The consortium plans to launch the iniative on July 13 with the aim of developing concrete plans over the next two to three years.

Michael Straub of the Desertec Foundation, a network of scientists which lobbies policymakers to back the idea, told the Financial Times that European companies had no immediate plans to cough up the requisite billions.

“They want to persuade politicians to create a framework and [electricity] feed-in tariffs so that this kind of investment can be made,” he said.

Desertec claims the project already has considerable political support, not least by the French government, which apparently studied the concept last year before launching a “Mediterranean Solar Plan”.

Of course, the project has its critics who claim transmitting energy over long distances is inefficient, the infrastructure would be vulnerable to natural disaster or terrorism and the potential for political squabbles is almost unlimited.

But, few question that CSP plants have real potential. They have been in use in California since the 1980s and new CSP projects are up and running in Spain and Nevada. “One can start building now,” said Mr Straub. “The technology is ready”.