At a Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona, an EU science and policy hotbed
Arnulf Jaeger-Waldau of the European commission's Institute for Energy unveiled
a visionary plan, which he says could satisfy all of the EU's energy
demands in coming years.
Mr. Jaeger-Waldau proposed blanketing the Sahara Desert, an expanding
uninhabited swath of wasteland, with solar panels. He says that if just
0.3% of the intense solar energy falling on the Sahara was captured, it could
power all of Europe. Such a feat would require a solar platform far
beyond current installations, approximately the size of Wales. Still,
when viewed against the backdrop of the vast, mostly uninhabited Sahara the
large chunk of land looks no bigger than a postage stamp.
A broad variety of solar technologies were discussed as possibilities for the
deployment. They included parabolic
dish collectors, a growing solar field, which focuses light via mirrors on
water, boiling it. Also discussed were the more traditional silicon based
solar power plants consisting of arrays of photo-voltaic panels.
The researchers are also considering the construction of a supergrid of very
high-power DC lines. These lines would connect the Sahara solar
infrastructure, wind power from the UK and Denmark, nuclear power plants across
Europe, and excess geothermal energy from Iceland. The grid would use its
multiple varied sources to balance loads. As DC lines lose far less
power, the plan promises to be economical where AC lines (currently used in
almost all power grids) would not be.
The plans have support from French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British PM Gordon
Scientists are particularly excited about getting energy from the Sahara, as the
panels are expected to generate nearly three times as much energy as those in
Europe thanks to the intense, more direct sunlight. Mr. Jaeger-Waldau and
proponents of the plan admit it will take a great deal of work.
Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, and other Mediterranean nations currently are
poorly interconnected in power grids. While a power cable does exist
between Morocco and Spain it is insufficient for the intense amount of power
proposed, and would need to be expanded or replaced. The fully implemented
DC-ready grid is projected to cost around $70B USD. Ultimately the
project would require an immense amount of construction, but this could have
economic benefits for Europe, creating new jobs.
The plan follows current trends, though. Algeria, which is located in
Northern Africa and contains part of the Sahara, is already planning to export
6 GW of power to Europe by 2020. To reach the final goal of complete
power independence, scientists and politicians are proposing a more modest
stepping stone goal. They want by 2050 100 GW worth of power to be
generated from solar projects in the Sahara. The project would cost a
lofty €450bn (approximately $700B USD), but would be staggered over many years
and would yield power capacity equivalent to all electrical power currently
generated in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Jaeger-Waldau believes that the larger solar farms will bring down costs
for consumers. He states, "The biggest PV system at the moment is
installed in Leipzig and the price of the installation is €3.25 per watt.
If we could realize that in the Mediterranean, for example in southern Italy,
this would correspond to electricity prices in the range of 15 cents per kWh,
something below what the average consumer is paying."
The new plan comes from the commission's joint research centre (JRC), which is
planning the EU's energy future. Giovanni de Santi, director of the JRC,
also speaking in Barcelona, stated of the new plan, "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
The JRC plans on building infrastructure in a broad array of alternative energy
classes, among them fuel cells and hydrogen, clean coal, second
generation biofuels, nuclear fusion, wind, nuclear fission and smart
grids. The JRC is tasked with accomplishing the EU's energy plan -- to
cut the EU's energy consumption by 20 percent and to have 20 percent of the
remaining consumption provided by alternative energy by 2020.