DESERTEC – A $560 Billion Dollar Solar Project


Dr. Gerhard Knies once said that deserts across the world receive more solar energy in six hours than all of humankind consumes in one year.  Dr. Knies is one of a group of visionaries working towards using the deserts in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East (called EU-MENA) to harvest solar power for electricity and clean drinking water.  DESERTEC, the entity running this project, has lofty goals with a large consortium of companies behind it.  By 2050, the plan is to have 20% or more of EU-MENA’s energy needs using clean, sustainable sources.  DESERTEC plans to employ concentrated solar power collectors (CSPs), accented by wind, water, and geothermal, and use high-voltage direct current transmission lines to accomplish their mission.  Watch Dr. Knies talk about CSPs:

DESERTEC released a map graphic of “the plan” in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa:


How this massive project will work is that solar energy will be harvested in the Middle East and in Africa, and it will be pumped into Europe.  There are two major issues that pop up in my head almost immediately:

  • How will you get the power across the sea into Europe?
  • Wait, isn’t this kind of a lose-win deal for the desert countries?  Is Europe exploiting the poorer region?

To answer the first question, an interview with Peter Löscher, the CEO of Siemens, one of the companies behind the initiative, gives the impression that undersea transmission lines will play a major part in moving this power around the region.  From the Spiegel article:

Top companies lined up on Monday to get behind the world’s most ambitious solar energy project. They signed a memorandum of understanding in Munich to set up the Desertec Industrial Initiative which involves what is being called a “solar technology belt” across the Middle East and North Africa, with a huge undersea “super grid” then delivering the power back to Europe.

The aim of the €400 billion ($560 billion) project is to provide carbon-free energy that could supply up to 20 percent of European energy needs by 2050.

At first the Desertec project, which arose out of a feasibility study commissioned by the German Ministry of the Environment, looked as though it might not get much further than the drawing board because of its hefty price tag. But a consortium of some of Europe’s heaviest financial hitters has come together to raise the required funds. Among others both governmental and non-governmental, this includes Deutsche Bank, energy giants RWE and E.ON, major insurer Munich Re and electro-engineering leader Siemens.

DESERTEC’s whitebook and redpaper (both PDF links) do a pretty good job of explaining the issues that we’re facing, like the growing population and the ability for our plant to sustain our growth.  One example is this excellent visual:


We’re consuming our resources faster than we’re able to keep up with their disappearance.  Our lighting, where it is getting better, is still not to a point where it sustains its growth.  The plan by DESERTEC is a smart idea, but I have some questions about its future:

  1. Who’s going to control this thing?  Is the administration for this body going to be multiple countries and multiple entities coming together to form a consensus, or is it going to become yet another small-body power hungry organization that makes closed door decisions on the fate of human kind?
  2. What is a realistic cost figure for this project?
  3. Is the United States and countries in this hemisphere at all involved in a project of this scope, and if not, why not?
  4. How is a project of this magnitude kept out of corruption and greed?  If you think about it, the country (or countries) who masters a plan like this has the ability to govern the remainder of those countries, especially when they run out of resources and methods for gaining new ones.

I like the idea here.  I’m a much bigger fan of life than I am super light killer mega death rays.

Toyota Advertisement on Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)

Have you seen the most recent ad for Toyota and concentrated solar power?  I just ran across it a few days ago, thanks to the Green Technology Blog – the ad has some beautiful images in it – me being a lighting designer that loves (loves loves loves) haze and atmospherics in my design work, the images of the beams reflecting off of the solar reflectors and up onto the collector really caught my eye.

Check it out:

Concentrated Solar Power – 25% of the World’s Power Needs?


I think that the little solar reflectors look like machines praying to some big solar deity.  How cute!

But seriously, apparently using CSP (or concentrated solar power – the little praying sun mirrors) in deserts around the world will provide a whole bunch of power – about 25% of the projected need – by 2050.  It feels a little premature to predict that far ahead, but I’m not a scientist or predictor-of-solar-power-needs-person.

From the article at Consumer Energy Report:

“Concentrating solar power could meet up to 7 percent of the world’s projected power needs in 2030 and a full quarter by 2050,” accroding to the joint report conducted by the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association (ESTELA), environmental group Greenpeace, and the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) SolarPACES group.

According to those estimations, massive investments will be needed in order to improve upon existing technologies. The 28-page report says that 174 billion euros ($243 billion) per year would need to be invested by 2050. Under that scenario, solar power plants would have installed capacity of 1,500 GW.

At the end of 2008 CSP capacity was around 430MW, and worldwide investment in the technology will reach 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion).  CSP uses arrays of hundreds of mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays to temperatures between 400 and 1,000 Celsius (750-1,800 Fahrenheit) to provide energy to run a power plant.

Recently, a research expert noted that the Sahara Desert has the capacity to supply all of Europe’s electricity needs by installing an array of solar panels, due to the strong sun in the region.

Well, what do you know?  I’m feeling a bit negative today, but I really, really hope that all of our gung-ho-ness about solar power doesn’t peter out any time soon.  It just feels like we should be dumping metric crap-tons of money into this technology.