50bn STG of investment needed for Saharan solar plan

European countries could transform their electricity supplies within a decade by investing in a giant network of solar panels in the Sahara desert, an expert told a global warming conference in Copenhagen today.

Dr Anthony Patt of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Africa said some £50bn of government investment was needed over the next decade to make the scheme a reality. That would convince private companies that power from the Sahara was both feasible and an attractive investment, he said.

In the long term, such a plan, combined with strings of windfarms along the north Africa coast, could "supply Europe with all the energy it needs".

He said technological advances combined with falling costs have made it realistic to consider north Africa as Europe's main source of imported energy.

"The sun is very strong there and it's very reliable. There is starting to be a growing number of cost estimates of both wind and concentrated solar power for North Africa....that start to compare favourably with alternative technologies. The cost of moving [electricity] long distances has really come down."

He said only a fraction of the Sahara, probably the size of a small country, would need to be covered to produce enough energy to supply the whole of Europe.

The results are the first findings of a major research effort, together with experts at the European Climate Forum and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, to judge whether such a Sahara solar plan is realistic.

Patt said the team was looking at questions of security and governance, as well as ways to pay for the technology. The full results will be presented to governments later this year.

He said sunshine in the Sahara is twice as strong as in Spain and is a constant resource that is rarely blocked by clouds even in the winter.

The scheme would use mirrors to focus the sun's rays onto a thin pipe containing either water or salt. The rays boil the water or melt the salt and the resulting energy used to power turbines.

Unlike wind power, which usually has to be used immediately because of the cost of storing the electricity generated, the hot water and salt can be stored for several hours.

Trials of such concentrated solar power plants are planned for Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Dubai, but Libya and Tunisia could also be considered.

Patt said that starting such a scheme would not be all plain sailing though. There would likely be opposition from local communities across Europe who unhappy about transmission cables installed near their homes. Piecemeal national transmission networks could also pose a problem.

The findings were revealed at the Copenhagen Climate Congress, a special three-day summit aimed at updating the latest climate science ahead of global political negotiations in December over a successor to the Kyoto treaty.

(c) The Guardian


Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2009 13:12