Desertec Dreams: Can Saharan Solar Power Save Europe?

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Some say it's a foolish fantasy, others believe it has the potential to save the world from the effects of climate change. The German-led Desertec initiative to build massive solar thermal power plants in the Sahara Desert has both advocates and critics. SPIEGEL ONLINE looks at the current state of play.

Is it a mirage? Some experts think so, others say it will become a reality. Zoom
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Is it a mirage? Some experts think so, others say it will become a reality.

For years, the idea of generating solar power for Europe in the Sahara was dismissed as pure fantasy. But then all of sudden it was happening, and Desertec was making headlines worldwide.

The Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), a consortium of 12 large companies, plans to cover thousands of square kilometers of the Sahara Desert with solar thermal energy collectors. According to the plan, solar power from the desert will sate an energy-hungry world, a world in which oil reserves are dwindling and in which the climate is changing as a result of the use of oil, coal and gas reserves.

The amount of energy that the sun provides every day over the Sahara is so huge that solar plants covering 90,000 square kilometers of desert would be enough to provide the whole world with clean, emissions-free energy. Yet that whole area would be little more than just a glittering speck in the vast expanse of desert, which covers some 9 million square kilometers.

Until now, however, the whole thing has been little more than a mathematical exercise. A fossil fuel-based energy industry which has developed over decades is not going to switch to solar energy overnight. Which is why DII's current goals are relatively modest, namely to cover 15 percent of European electricity needs with energy from the desert by 2050.

With Desertec, low-tech will meet high-tech. The idea itself is a simple one. The sun's rays are collected, water is converted into steam, and this is then used to power turbines. No complicated atomic fusion, no silicon solar cells, no CO2 stored underground -- just solid engineering, which was already being used in Egypt almost 100 years ago.

The challenges lie in the details. How does one improve this sort of simple technology so that it becomes a valid competitor to coal-fired and atomic power?

German engineers are currently working on these issues. And they are having some success. Solar thermal power plant efficiency is nearing the 20 percent mark. And German experts believe that, by 2020, the energy coming from the desert will be cheaper than that from conventional power stations in Germany.

Next week, the world will be meeting in Copenhagen to discuss reductions in CO2 emissions, in a bid to keep global warming in check. Desertec is one example of what a clean, climate-friendly power source could look like.

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