Arnulf Jaeger-Walden of the European Commission’s Institute for Energy has declared at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona that European carbon emissions could be slashed by generating solar electricity in the Sahara Desert. Scientists have calculated that if just 0.3% of the solar energy falling on deserts in the Middle East and Sahara could be captured, it could meet 100% of the electricity needs of Europe.
Algeria are already buiding a combined solar/gas power station which will produce its first electricity by 2010 and is planned to export 6GW of solar power to Europe by 2020 – equivalent to the output of 6 typical modern nuclear power stations. However, enormous investment would be required if the whole of Europe were to be powered by North African solar power. Scientists working on this project have calculated that an investment of 450 Billion Euro during the next 40 years would be necessary to reach 100GW output – where 100GW is about the same as the total power output of all power stations in the UK combined today.
Generating Electricity in the Sahara Desert
There are two main types of solar generation planned for North Africa. The first is standard photovoltaic solar panels (PV). Thanks to the number of sunshine hours, the clean dry air, and the latitude of the Sahara Desert, a solar panel installed there will generate up to 3x as much power than it would if it was installed in the UK.
The second (and more likely) is to use concentrated solar power (CSP) – an array of mirrors which focus the sun’s rays onto a single point to make super-heated steam to turn a turbine (pictured above). See our article First European Solar Power Tower for information on how this technology is already being used in Southern Spain.
European Supergrid – HVDC Transmission
If renewable energy is to be used to power Europe, then a new low-loss electricity grid will need to be constructed. The UK national grid for example transmits high voltage AC (alternating current) electricity along thick cables. This works well over the relatively short transmission distances, but if surplus wind energy from UK is to be used in Bulgaria, or if Saharan solar electricity is to be used in UK, more efficient transmission would be essential.
The plan is to create a Europe-wide supergrid of low loss high voltage DC (direct current) cables. HVDC cables have energy losses as low as 3% per 1000km, and their use will make it easier for countries which generate AC electricity at different frequencies to synchronise and pool green electricity. Current estimates put the cost of such a supergrid at around 45 Billion Euro.
Click here to visit the TREC-UK website. TREC stands for Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation – an initiative which promotes the benefits of collecting sunlight energy falling on barren desert regions and generating electricity to power the world.