The Observer, Sunday 27 June 2010
The race to harness the sun of the Sahara and Middle East deserts is one initiative in a far-ranging European energy consensusAlok Jha
Andasol 1, in southern Spain, is the world's largest solar power plant, providing energy for over 200,000 people. Photograph: Solar Millennium AG.
There are probably easier ways to meet Europe's thirst for clean energy than importing it from vast solar farms in the Sahara. But it is very tempting. According to the European commission's Institute for Energy, it would require the capture of just 0.3% of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle Eastern deserts (an area around the size of Wales) to meet all of Europe's energy needs.
Several groups have come up with plans to harness the sun in Africa to make electricity, which could then be exported to Europe, or use it to turn desert into forests by using the power to desalinate sea water. And how far is this from a reality? In a recent interview, European energy commissioner Günther Oettinger said that Europe will be importing hundreds of megawatts of solar-generated electricity from north Africa within five years. The EU is committed to sourcing 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
Most advanced in the planning is the German-led Desertec Industrial Initiative, which aims to provide 15% of Europe's electricity by 2050 or earlier, via power lines stretching across the desert and the Mediterranean. Its $400bn plan is supported by some of Germany's biggest companies, including Siemens, E.On and Deutsche Bank.
And there is a precedent. Nine EU governments – including the UK – are already planning to build an advanced high-voltage, direct current network within the next decade. Europe's first electricity grid dedicated to renewable power took a step forward earlier this year when nine countries began to formalise plans to link their clean energy projects around the North Sea. These could join up the wind-lashed north coast of Scotland with Germany's vast array of solar panels and Norway's hydro-electric dams.
As well as providing more power, a transnational renewable electricity grid would help sort out the intermittencies associated with natural energy sources. With such a grid, electricity can be supplied across the continent from wherever the wind is blowing, the sun is shining or the waves are crashing