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Clean Power Desertec - solar power from Africa - 1

Published on December 14th, 2011 | by Charis Michelsen


Solar Energy From the Sahara Desert Could Power the World – But Will It?

December 14th, 2011 by  

Desertec - solar power from Africa - 1The African desert is hot. It gets a lot of sun. These are facts that we all know, even if we have no personal experience (and for those of you who haven’t been there, let me assure you, it’s true). It seems intuitive that the intensity of the sunlight pressing down on that desert makes the area ideal for generating solar power, and indeed – such plans were conceived in 1913 (by American engineer Frank Shuman), and again explored in 1986 (by German particle physicist Gerhard Knies).

Both Shuman and Knies strongly believed desert solar energy was necessary; Shuman believed that humanity would revert to barbarism without it, and Knies felt that it was the only way to avoid dirty and dangerous fossil fuels. Knies even went so far as to say that the desert received enough energy in a few hours to power the world for a year. While Shuman was thwarted by a world war, Knies spent two decades working to develop desert solar power as a viable energy source, and his efforts resulted in the project “Desertec.”

What is Desertec?

map of desertec stations and power linesDesertec is a set of plans for a massive network of solar and wind farms stretching across the Mena region and intended to connect to Europe via high voltage direct current transmission cables (which are supposed to only lose 3% of their electricity per 1000km, or 620 miles).

Although Desertec has been widely regarded as nothing more than an unattainable dream for most of its history, it’s been gaining some momentum over the past two years. A number of significant German corporations – including E. ON, Munich Re, Siemens, and Deutsche Bank – have all signed on with the project, forming the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii). Germany’s decision to speed up the schedule to dismantle its nuclear power plants earlier this year has also helped generate more German support for Desertec, and the first phase of construction is set to begin in Morocco next year.

The Dii isn’t entirely German, although half the corporate representatives at its annual conference in Cairo last month hailed from that country, and the main component of the current technology (glass troughs, see below) are only made by German companies. Paul Van Son, Dii’s CEO, claims the project is international in nature. According to the Guardian, he said:

“Yes, the initiative came from Germany. But there are 15 different nationalities involved, including companies such as HSBC and Morgan Stanley. This is just the start.”

As noted in one of our roundup posts last month, the French (a big energy player, of course) are also getting on board the Desertec project now.

How It Works

solar trough (built in israel)Most of the solar energy would come from “concentrated solar power” plants, or CSP plants. The CSP plants use both natural gas and solar panels when generating electricity. Each plant holds a number of parabolic troughs – several yards tall – containing receiver tubes above a parabolic mirror and filled with an oil-like heat transfer fluid.

The fluid is heated to 400C (750F) and then used to heat steam in a standard turbine generator. The fluid is then cooled before it is returned to the receiver tubes. During the day, the energy to heat the fluid is all solar; natural gas may be used at night to continue the process. However, the amount of energy produced by fossil fuels is legally limited to 27% of total output.

So What’s the Problem?

One of the difficulties in maintaining CSPs is the harsh desert itself; while damaging sandstorms are relatively rare, the troughs must be tilted away from the wind if it reaches a certain speed. Bodo Becker, operations manager at a German company specializing in building CSP plants designed for desert use, says that if the troughs are not moved away from high winds, they act like giant sails. (That’s definitely not good for the equipment.)

Keeping the troughs clean isn’t easy, either; dry cleaning technology is being developed, but it doesn’t quite work yet. Currently, water is used both to cool the heat transfer fluid and clean the array. It’s a lot of water, according to Becker, as reported by the Guardian:

“Due to the dusty conditions, we are witnessing about 2% degradation every day in performance, so we need to clean them daily. We use about 39 cubic meters [10,300 gallons] of demineralized water each day for cleaning across the whole site.”

The total cost of completing the project is a barrier, too – it’s currently estimated at over $500 billion USD. A number of recent climate conference attendees focused on the question of how Desertec could be financed; EU subsidies, tariffs added to European energy bills, and bank loans were all the subject of speculation.

What Does Africa Think?

mena region, where solar plants are plannedThere’s a pretty clear idea – particularly in Germany – of what Europe wants from Desertec, and even the beginnings of a plan to get there. The final question – which should perhaps be the first – is how Africa stands on the project. Specifically, those countries making up the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region – as that’s where the solar plants would be located – should have their say.

Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe of the African Network for Solar Energy is skeptical of the project in general, fearing that it smacks of exploitation. He is not alone in this reaction, as other MENA-based speakers at the conference raised similar concerns. According to the Guardian, Egbe said:

“Many Africans are skeptical [about Desertec]. [Europeans] make promises, but at the end of the day, they bring their engineers, they bring their equipment, and they go. It’s a new form of resource exploitation, just like in the past.”

Another concern is how much of the energy will be available locally and how much will be sent abroad. Most of the MENA region lacks universal access to electricity, and the need is expected to grow in the near future. The electricity available now is largely foreign, which is an unpalatable situation.

Obaid Amrane, a board member of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, said that 42% of the electricity should be from renewable sources by 2020. “We will build extra capacity beyond what Morocco needs if someone wants us to,” he said, “but we will need a big share of the electricity produced by these projects.”

At Least We’re All Focusing on Renewable Energy This Time

While Desertec and its plants are moving along, other sources of green energy are also gaining momentum in Africa (and Europe, and the United States, and Asia…). Wind turbines and photovoltaic panels both have their supporters in countries such as Jordan, as both are less water-intensive than Desertec’s SCP plants, and solar towers with hundreds of pivoting mirrors also have staunch supporters.

Whichever way it goes, the move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy is heartening. Let us know what you think of the push for green energy from Africa, in the comments, below.

Source: The Guardian | Images: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

spent 7 years living in Germany and Japan, studying both languages extensively, doing translation and education with companies like Bosch, Nissan, Fuji Heavy, and others. Charis has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. She also believes that Janeway was the best Star Trek Captain.

  • Mj Malulein

    This should be a global project that would serve the middle east, Africa and europe, it’s unfair to only serve europe, all of these countries should participate in the cost and benefit

  • Solar power

    Today nearly 75% of electricity is produced unsustainably from fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas. A solar system on your roof will greatly reduce the amount of pollution caused by people’s everyday activities. An average 10kw solar system is equal to planting 6000 trees, taking 50 cars off the road for a year, and recycling over 80 tons of waste. One of the best things about solar energy in terms of environmental benefits is that it produces almost no carbon emissions. This helps to rank it among the cleanest forms of energy on earth.

  • frank

    What about using water as fluid of choice and further the greening process while were at it. Food and trees would counter carbon issue as well. People calm down when they have food and economy.

  • someonewhoknowswhat’sgoingon

    wind damage solution: plant trees around and build wind turbines around the panels to act as wind breakers.
    Cleaning solution: use giant windshield wiper-type things that are self powered from the solar energy produced to wipe them daily.
    Political solution: pay the residents of the particular country money earned from selling the power in countries with higher living standards

  • Mansour Id-Deen

    I read about this proposed solar mirror project a couple
    years ago and the first thought that came to mind was; what part did African leaders
    play in the decision/planning stage of this project? I felt that it was very
    arrogant and disingenuous of the France and Germany to plan to take Africa’ sun
    energy to Europe without first consulting African leaders. This is the 21st
    century and I trust that African leaders will look out for Africa’s interest
    first. African leaders must not stand by and let neither its continent nor its
    people be exploited by anyone ever again.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The power needs of the North African countries were included in this plan.

      As it stands it looks like Desertec is not happening. Largely, I think, due to the unrest in so many of the NA countries. Until things settle down it’s unlikely that people will be interested in investing money in projects which would be faced with a lot of political uncertainty.

      Desertec seems to have been replaced with a new concept called E-Highway 2050.

      “A European research consortium, supported in part by the European Commission, has launched the e-Highway2050 project with the aim of developing a long-term planning methodology for the necessary expansion and conversion of the European electricity transmission grids. The resulting approach will propose a Modular Development Plan for the pan-European transmission network from 2020 to 2050. The development of an integrated European electricity market emphasises the importance of increasing interconnections between existing and future transmission networks. This research project paves the way for an integrated pan-European grid, able to meet European commitments such as integrating large quantities of electric power generated by renewable energy sources (wind, biomass and solar) and transporting it over long distances to consumption sites.”

      The solar inputs are likely to come from southern Europe – Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc. It looks like Africa is out of the mix at least until those countries become more reliable/stable.

      • samrat Singh

        if anybody wants to make plant for solar energy in rajasthan and need land for solar plant please contact :

    • Zachary Shahan

      as far as i have always seen, the MENA leaders have been involved in the process and support it.

    • samrat Singh

      If anybody wants to make plant for solar energy in India (Rajasthan) and need land for solar plant please contact :

  • Ed Scott

    The technology is not there, and as they said generators are required to keep the electricity glowing at night. Also, the amount of water needed to clean and its costs are prohibitive. Solar and wind, at best as of now are an interesting, expensive hobby.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Sorry, Ed, you’re wrong in so many ways that I just don’t know where to start.

      The technology is there.

      Water is not an issue.

      Wind is one of our two cheapest ways to bring new electricity on line. Solar is rapidly moving to be the third.

      Some fill-in generation is needed to turn wind and solar into a 24/365 supply but that’s almost certainly a short term issue while we figure out the best/least expensive storage solution.

    • Zachary Shahan

      1- the technology is already here.

      2- PV & wind use *much* less water than other electricity options.

      3- wind power is the cheapest option for new electricity in many or even most places. Since 2008, wind turbine prices have fallen 29%.

      Solar PV prices have fallen 80% since 2008, and 20% in 2012 alone.

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  • Michael

    Exploiting the Sarah for solar power will benefit both Africa and Europe. In time economics will demand it one would expect that local politics would encourage it.

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  • Robert Price

    Well certainly Sahara desert can be a great source of Solar Energy if exploited. There are areas around the world which we don’t exploit due to concerns but Africa can certainly think about this great source of energy.

    Samuel from

  • James Austin

    Solar Energy is energy of future and more countries explore options to utilize this natural source of energy, more they are going to gain in future. Hindrances are always there but solutions are also there to overcome them.


    good theoretical work if dreams come through then great Australian desert

    Tibet, Rajastan in India can provide power to world

    • Bob_Wallace

      India has a lot of sunshine.

      India is also building a lot of dams.

      It would seem to make sense to use those dams for pump-up storage of solar power for nighttime use. It wouldn’t effect the use of the water for other purposes.

  • executive gifts

    Hello cleantechnica! As a recently graduated Electrical Engineer, many other young engineers and I are only focusing in renewable energy. Oil is the fuel of the past, its time for the old generations to retire and let us make the clean energy transition faster. And as citizens of the world We should also demand our governments to invest more in Renewable Energy and less in War.

    • Zachary Shahan

      Thanks for the note! :D

      Agreed. :D

    • Virender Kumar Sharma

      We must try our best to convince the governments.In any case if they decide on switching over to renewable energy sources now it will be their wisdom, for otherwise after drying up of all mineral based energy resources in about forty years it will be their doom.

    • Ed Scott

      Delusional much?

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  • Nizar

    Temperatures in the desert is too high for solar PV. When 35 Deg C (95 F) is reached solar PV performance will stsrt to drop down. the temperature in the desert could reach 50 deg C (122 F) in the shade. Solar PV are dark and absorb a lot of heat. Under direct sun temperatures of dark objects could reach 70 Deg C (158 F). As a result the output performance will drop down substantially. In addition, solar PV are senseative to dust and sand. They require regular surface cleaning. In the desert, dust and sand accour on a daily basis. Solar PV is not a great solution for the desert even with the new technology of self cleaning ones.

    Wind turbine could be a better choice. But, finding the right wind site location will be a challenge. Wind in the desert, averages 5m/s except where wind paths in between mountains are available. Also, dust storms and high wind will cause the wind turbine material to deteriorate at a higher rate than usual. During a sand storm, sand will act as a sand blasting gun. it will eat-out the wind turbine blade surfaces and will reduce performance after a few years. In addition, dust will be the main cause of failure for the moving components.

    For concentrated solar power or parabolic troughs, the problems have been addressed in the article. and in the comments.

    The above are problems that the technology can overcome with some additional design cost which is related to materials and equipments. But what about the participating countries?

    The grid tie of Desrtec is going through so many countries with different political differences. Many times we’ve seen neighbouring countries that have been living peacfully for years fight over silly issues. Such a problem will cause a flip of a switch to turn the entire grid off. This will halt the operation of the entire network. Over and above, the cost of the project is too high to be done at one go.

    • Zachary Shahan

      Note the solar technology discussed above,.. it’s not PV.

  • Bill Woods

    Am I reading this right? 39 cubic meters of water per day to wash 130,000 sq.m of mirror? That’s 10 cm/sq.m per year — a significant amount in a desert. Also, the solar power is 1/7th of 150 MW = 22 MW?

    • Bill Woods

      … and if the first comment had posted immediately or been flagged as in moderation, I wouldn’t have tried again.

      • Zachary Shahan

        Sorry, we made some major shifts in our backend and it seems it knocked out our commenting system, Disqus. Hope to get it back soon.

  • Bill Woods

    Am I reading this right? It takes 39 cubic meters per day to clean 130,000 sq.m? That’s about 10 cm/sq.m per year — a substantial figure in a desert. And that only generates 22 MW?

  • Anonymous

    “Obaid Amrane, a board member of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, said that 42% of the electricity should be from renewable sources by 2020. “We will build extra capacity beyond what Morocco needs if someone wants us to,” he said, “but we will need a big share of the electricity produced by these projects.””

    Assuming a significant difference in available sunlight and price of land look to financial interests other than the Moroccan government to build solar in North Africa.

    There’s already a transmission line between Europe and Morocco that carries power south to Morocco. Since the line is in place, and assuming Morocco will install solar in at least the amount of power that comes south during solar hours, someone is going to build capacity and feed power to that line north to Europe.

    It’s going to be a cheap proof of concept. If power can be generated in NA and shipped north cheaper than putting the generation in Southern Europe then big money interests will see that NA solar happens.

    Don’t forget, Europe is moving away from both coal and nuclear.

    • Vigneshwaran

      hey can we use thermocouple in desert to produce current…..
      because the desert sand is hot during day time and cold during night time…. if we plant some thermocouple in the soil of the desert we can get some amt of energy know!!!!!????

      • Bob_Wallace

        As far as I know we don’t have thermocouples efficient enough to make electricity affordably that way.

        More likely we will have solar panels which have much wider wavelength sensitivity and will be able to make electricity from “heat” as well as visible light.

  • Rccroofing

    great idea and i hope they solve the problems, politics wind and self cleaning.. Africa will require free electric or some exspansive rebate deal as it is on there land.. This would tick all the charity boxs as well… win win win ,,go deserttec go!!!!


    I wish the politicians and their vested interests do not come in the way of such a remarkable project which is the ultimate solution to the energy security of this globe along with other renewable/sustainable energy sources.

    • samrat Singh

      If anybody wants to make plant for solar energy in India (Rajasthan) and need land for solar plant in good price please contact :

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