Spain, which holds the solar plant shown here, is leading the EU's solar efforts. However its contributions could be a drop in the bucket compared to plans to get solar energy from the Saharan desert wasteland, where solar panels produce nearly 3 times as much power. Algeria and other Saharan nations plan to join with Europe in these efforts.  (Source: AP)
The largest fully industrialized populus in the world could be entirely powered by a small fraction of solar desert energy, according to new plan

The U.S. has some big plans for solar, both with building new power plants and through businesses and consumers adding solar panels to rooftops and unused land.  However, no U.S. solar effort thus far compares to the ambitious plan that European Union (EU) officials are considering.

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 Brown. 

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 these targets."

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.

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