We’ve been following the Sahara Forest Project in Qatar since 2008, but somehow we missed an interesting connection with the US Department of Energy. The connection is the Energy Department’s Algae Biomass Consortium, of which the Sahara Forest Project is a member. That brings into focus how both of these oil-rich countries are beginning to develop transitional economic models that prepare for a future in which their domestic petroleum reserves become less competitive in global energy markets.
We had a chance to speak with Dr. Virginia Corless, Science and Development Manager of The Sahara Forest Project, earlier this month at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, and she helped us tease out some of the implications of that transition.
An Integrated Economic System Based On Solar Energy
To clarify, although the pilot and R&D facility of the Sahara Forest Project is located in Qatar, the developer is a company of the same name, based in Norway.
Like the name implies, the Sahara Forest Project aims to grow market-competitive crops in desert regions, through an innovative integration of existing water and energy technologies with conservation strategies.
When the project first crossed CleanTechnica’s radar back in 2008, the main thing that caught our eye was the potential for using solar energy to desalinate seawater. The next time we checked in was 2012, when the project began to take shape around a concentrating solar power system.
Last year the pilot facility went on line and we had an aha moment. We were kind of assuming all along that the Sahara Forest Project was geared toward creating a sustainable model for developing nations, but in the context of California’s devastating drought it finally occurred to us that the Sahara Forest Project model would be quite useful right here in the US.
As it turns out, we were pretty much on track. Although the Sahara Forest Project is designed to come up with exportable strategies it is not necessarily a one size fits all solution, and Dr. Corless noted that its application to other countries depends at least partly on the existence of a developed infrastructure.
Local Food And Energy Hubs
Earlier this year, the Sahara Forest Project announced the successful completion of a vegetable crop cycle that demonstrated the potential for market competition with greenhouses in Europe. Dr. Corless pointed out that this mark was achieved despite the extreme conditions of the desert location.
That crop happened to be cucumbers, which Dr. Corless explained were chosen to launch the project because, among other reasons, cucumbers are sensitive to salt. The ability of cucumbers to thrive at the project is a good indicator of the potential for other crops to do well.
The project also includes an algae biomass component, and that’s where it intersects with the US Department of Energy.
US interest in algae biofuel took off under the Obama Administration on multiple fronts, including the launch of the Algae Biomass Consortium with the help of $85 million in 2009 Recovery Act funding.
The Sahara Forest Project joined the Consortium representing the nonprofit sector, and it looks like things are already starting to cook. Last summer, a promising strain of algae was discovered at the Sahara Forest Project and Consortium member Duke University is currently analyzing its potential for biofuel.
With an algae biofuel component the Sahara Forest Project dovetails with Obama Administration energy policy, which supports local biofuel crops as a pathway to regional energy resiliency.
That’s on top of the economic development opportunities afforded by the food growing aspect of the project, along with high value algae products such as cosmetics and nutraceuticals.
As climate-related drought becomes a more permanent fixture in parts of the US, lessons learned in the Qatari desert could make all the difference in a sustainable future for the American economy.
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