Most experts agree that global climate change represents a very real and growing threat, regardless of the ultimate cause. But a report released by the International Energy Agency in November suggested that the current trajectory of global emissions would make it difficult to limit warming to two degrees Celsius, the agency’s estimated safe limit of temperature change.
Solar power has already begun to play a role in reducing these emissions, with more than 18 gigawatts of solar installation added in 2010, according to industry analyst Solarbuzz. Commercial and residential solar installations continue to grow, but one group sees the solution in a larger, more concerted effort.
The Desertec Industrial Initiative is a project that looks to harness the massive amount of solar energy that strikes the desert and goes otherwise unused toward that end. Desertec is the result of decades of effort by German particle physicist Gerhard Knies, who decided to calculate the extent of this power in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. By Knies’ estimates, just six hours of sunlight across the world’s deserts represents enough energy to power the world for one year.
Desertec takes a slightly less ambitious challenge, hoping to provide more than 15 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050 from solar and wind farms in the North African deserts alone.
The project has been slow to gain traction among investors, with many concerned about issues ranging from the security of the projects to the expense of transmitting the energy across the Mediterranean and then throughout Europe. This proves a particularly sensitive issue in part because German solar incentives could ultimately fund much of the project. The problem only becomes more complicated with some North African denizens suggesting that the project represents resource exploitation in the same vein as earlier centuries’ imperialism.
“When the idea for Desertec was first announced there was anger and irritation from the Arab League,” Paul van Son, chief executive officer of Desertec, explained to the Guardian. “They didn’t understand it at first, but we explained that it would benefit their members, too. We explained it would be a cooperative process and they became more relaxed. It’s a win-win for all, we stressed. The relationship is all positive now.”
At this point, both Egypt and Morocco have taken steps toward these type of major solar projects. Egypt has already built a 150-megawatt hybrid natural gas power plant that draws more than 20 megawatts of its power from solar thermal installations. Meanwhile, Desertec itself is set to begin the development of a 500 megawatts solar power plant near Ouarzazate in the south of the country.
Some substantial challenges remain even for the plant that has reached operation. Operators found that the extremely dusty conditions could lead to a rapid drop in efficiency without daily cleaning, which can prove expensive in the desert when it involves water.
Nevertheless, The Wall Street Journal reports that solar power could prove to be a powerful boon for African nations still struggling to provide adequate electricity to their citizens. However, if Desertec, which already has around $550 billion raised for its projects, proves successful it could have a major impact on the American solar industry as well. While most of the participants in the project are German, the example established by the project could provide further incentive to explore more of the desert “resources” around North America, from Death Valley to Northern Mexico.