Tapping the Sahara for Europe’s Energy Needs

The search for renewable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly energy is taking European energy companies to Africa. Apparently, just the desert section of the region — once derided as the Dark Continent — receives enough light from the sun on a single day to power the entire world's electricity need for an entire year.

But delivering that power to European houses and factories will require some wizardry. Thousands of miles, tough terrains and the Mediterranean separate Europe's major cities from the Sahara desert. Energy companies in Europe want high tech companies and especially semiconductor vendors to offer the solutions that can harness, store, manage the transmission and efficiently deliver solar power from the desert in the most cost-effective way.

The project, according to a report, would initially cost about £5 billion and up to £200 billion over 30 years. It would require mountains of high-tech hardware and other electronic components and create growth opportunities for OEMs and suppliers.

In Europe, an organization known as Desertec is leading the drive to generate energy from deserts across the world. Its current focus is Europe, the Mediterranean and the Sahara desert. In what I consider a smart move, Desertec is not only promoting clean energy generation but it has coupled this with security, a subject of increasing concern especially in Western nations worried about the fact crude oil is often mined in hostile countries.

Although solar power can be generated quickly, cost remains a concern, according to Desertec. Also, while generating solar power might be easy in the Sahara desert transmitting and distributing this to consumption centers in Western Europe and elsewhere remains problematic. Desertec's current solution is to find a way to accelerate production and create the multinational partnerships that would address differences amongst all the nations involved. Desertec frames its preferred solution this way:

    In order to accelerate the construction of the required facilities and infrastructure, the pertinent policy frameworks have to be created which allow for international trade with clean power and provide suitable investment incentives. The sooner cost reductions are achieved by mass production, the faster clean power from deserts will become an economic alternative to fossil sources of energy.

Countries bordering the Mediterranean are involved, including Portugal and Spain in Europe but also Algeria in Africa. Is the project viable? Theoretically, it is but there are so many flashpoints for disagreement an international body would be needed to address issues like fair pricing, compensation and consumption. African countries, for instance, while enthusiastic about the potential payoff from solar power also want to solve their energy problems by tapping the same resource.

Investors are queuing up to help solve financial problems and make a tidy profit. Already twenty German blue chip companies, including {complink 6730|Deutsche Bank AG} and E.on, have thrown their weight behind the project.

My view is that the Desertec project cannot be without difficulties. The distance involved is huge but so is the need. Hermann Scheer, the late founder of Eurosolar, the European Association for Renewable energy, once called the Desertec project “highly problematic.”

I agree. This is no doubt a mammoth undertaking but advancements in technology are already playing a huge role in achieving the goals of sustainable and environmentally friendly energy generation. The Desertec solar power project is not different.

28 comments on “Tapping the Sahara for Europe’s Energy Needs

  1. Violet
    December 28, 2010

    It seems that the first solution would be to ensure the plan works and provide Africa's energy needs THEN move on to fulfill the needs of other countries.  Am I just being too simple-minded about the energy solution?  I guess though if it is European countries providing the funding then they want to see the energy source come to Europe first rather than Africa…..and Africa does not have the funding to tap into the energy source – am I figuring this correctly?  But what a solution if it could work!  And where is the U.S. in all of this? Are we just falling behind, depending on oil as usual?

  2. stochastic excursion
    December 28, 2010

    I wonder what the capacity for manufacture of photoelectric materials is today.  Back of the envelope says Saharan surface area is 100 million billion square centimeters.  Given this and the current output of photoelectrics, it should be straightforward to figure the scale of investment needed to get something like this going, just from the standpoint of electronics.

  3. prabhakar_deosthali
    December 29, 2010

    As per my knowledge , California which enjoys more sunshine than othe states of America has installed large solar farms with solar concentrators . If I remember correctly, the Mojave desert ( it lies somewhere on the way to Las vegas ) has large solar farms. The technology being used here is having large solar concentrators genrating enough heat to generate steam . This steam is used to run steam turbines to generate electricity.

    As far as the transportation of generated energy from the Sahara desert is concerned, there could be another way to it . Rather than transporting the raw electricity using the transmission system which requires huge infrastructure investments and where transmission losses could eat up more than 30 to 40 % of the genrated electricity, would it be advisable to have battery manufacturing plants in the desert and use the solar energy to charge the batteries? This stored energy can be easily transported to all parts of the Europe without any loss in between.

  4. Ms. Daisy
    December 29, 2010


    You are not simple minded regarding this. Your suggestion makes perfect sense -to first ensure Africa's energy needs, then move on to fulfill the needs of other countries, unfortunately investors goals are  to make returns on the amount invested.

    North Africa had the sun all these time but too poor to develop the technology to harness it. Hopefully the leaders of the North African countries will work deals to benefit from the sun's harvest.

  5. tioluwa
    December 29, 2010

    This is an interesting development and to a greater percentage sad and annoying to me(please pardon my bias, i'm an african)

    from off-shore wind farms, now to cross-continental solar farms, Europe is really working hard at providing enough energy for itself.

    This report mentions at least 3 European contries who are intersted, states that investors are queuing up, but only mentions one African Country, but we know the desert cuts across the entire Northern africa with at least six countries.

    it's not the money that africa lacks, its the will and the vision to do it.

    If the project doesn't put at least the african counties who own the land into consideration, then i don't see it getting off the ground. Even if North africa can't pull itself together for a project like this, will it then sell its Desert to feed Europe? i don't think so.





  6. Anna Young
    December 29, 2010

    Violet, you have raised an important issue here. This is a joint project that involves many African and European countries working in partnership to meet their power needs and also for export. In order for the project to work a lot of infrastructure will have to be put in place and this is of benefit to the African countries too.

  7. kumar1863
    December 29, 2010

    Thanks for the post Young. All countries over the globe are worrying about renewable energy sources as the oil sources fading away, United States also increased their investment in solar power after facing the BP oil spill in the gulf of louisiana. Solar power generation and transportation from Africa's Sahara desert will serve the needs of all africa, european people.

  8. Anna Young
    December 30, 2010

    Tioluwa, Europe is not just providing energy for itself. It is estimated that Solar energy installation covering less than 1percent of the deserts of North Africa and  the Middle East would produce enough electricity to cover the needs of those in the regions, as well as Europe.

    To me this is a development programme for the North African countries and Europe. It is an intelligent answer not only to the global environmental issues but the economic problems, if it is wisely exploited.

  9. Ms. Daisy
    December 30, 2010


    The key statement is “if it is wisely exploited”. Many of Africa's resources are not wisely exploited. I hope the North Africans will do a better job than the Oil rich Africa nations whose people are impoverished while the leaders are living in great wealth.

    This is North Africa's opportunity for infrastructure development and hopefully better maintenance negotiations. We have to many “white elephants” all over Africa that have fallen to disrepair because of lack of back up maitenance plans and poor development of local human resources to keep the projects going.

    If it all goes well it will be a win-win situation!

  10. Himanshugupta
    December 30, 2010

    I agree with most of the comments. I think that the African countries will have a good (or any) negotiating power if the project starts. It will be win-win situation for both Europe and Africa as Ms. Daisy rightly say. The project will decrease Europe's depence on fossile fuel and gas. But i am bit worried about the feasibility of such projects as they need lot of cooperation and understanding between nations and continents.

  11. Himanshugupta
    December 30, 2010

    Very good article Anna indeed. As you also mention in your article, the transmission and distribution costs are the most significant costs involved. I wonder how much of the budget will be put to hardware (solar panels as they are damn expensive) and how much for the distribution as there will be mammoth distribution system to transmit power from Africa to Europe?

  12. Hawk
    December 30, 2010

    Excellent suggestions. Your comments addressed the technological problems associated with the deployment. Many of the comments here have focused on the social issues, exploitation — of Africa by Europeans  — corruption and stuff like this. This is a program that can be beneficial to everyone and the concept that “Africa's energy needs should be met first” is balderdash. The African countries are assisting with this project and they already are aware of the benefits to their countries. The involvement of for-profit companies investing their own money means it would be more difficult for corrupt governments to hijack the project.

    The idea of using batteries to store the power generated is a good one. I wonder if Anna has any additional ideas about how the companies involved hope to resolve the technology issues associated with this project.

  13. Hawk
    December 30, 2010

    Anna, Could you please expand on the technology challenges facing this project and how the developers hope to tackle this. Also, what are the opportunities here for tech companies to participate? Looking at the share scale of the project, this offers opportunities for investment and I wonder which other companies are involved. In terms of the semiconductor sector, many companies offer products that go into solar panels and power storage. I believe significant opportunities exist here for OEMs and component vendors to sell products to the power generators and the builders. Any further insight would be appreciated.

  14. bolaji ojo
    December 30, 2010

    Prabhakar, I like your suggestions on how to store and transmit solar energy. The use of giant batteries that can be transported by sea and air could help slash the project cost. Transmission is the main challenge this project will face and building the lines to carry power across the Mediterranean will no doubt be very expensive. I believe giant battery pods can be more easily carried across the sea and this could offer the opportunity to extend the use of the power generated across multiple countries rather than limiting this to only the countries bordering the Mediterranean. It can also help reduce the transmission cost for the African countries too, including across the Sahara.

  15. Anna Young
    December 30, 2010

    Generating electricity from solar panels is a proven technology. The challenge Desertec and the Sahara project would face is primarily that of transmission. To be precise, how do you transport the power generated from thousands of miles away to consumption points without losing 60 percent or more of the energy? Again, although this might seem to be a major challenge, the technology to address the problem is already available.

    There are ways to transport electricity by cable without losing too much of the power. One way is to use HVDC or high voltage direct current. Many European industrial giants are able to build the lines and I believe this is why companies like Siemens and ABB are likely to get involved. Semiconductor companies will be involved at the points of generation, transportation and in the provision of the smart meters that will be used at the consumption points. The technology is not the problem, perhaps not even the funding but certainly the will could be problematic.

  16. hwong
    December 31, 2010

    In order to transfer the electricity from these renewable sources, the Utility must build the infrastructure like substations, transmission and distribution lines to pass these energy for consumer use.  Once that infrastructure is built, it will definitely be beneficial for a long long time.

  17. Backorder
    December 31, 2010

    I dont know if it is only me or everyone feels the same way, but the vision of getting all the energy neccessary for the planet off a renewable resource makes the most business sense! The way I feel, I can almost trace the lack of capability, promise, intent or effort in green energy back to the Oil giants who obviously have a lot invested in conventional non renewable resources. They, on the other hand, are probably possessing the best technologies to push the pace. However, no one would want to waste existing investments!

  18. Anna Young
    December 31, 2010

    I think it's in the areas you identified that contract and component sales opportunities exist for electronic companies. OEMs make the equipment that go into substations, transformers, etc and they are using more electronic parts in these equipment nowadays. Whatever the merits and disadvantages of the program it is almost definite that sometime in the near future we will see solar panels proliferatiing in the Sahara.

    The idea is now out, the technology is available and whether the power generated is used in Africa or Europe, it will come to market eventually. If the Desertec project fails because of wranglings among the Mediterranean countries or due to cost prohibitions, I believe the North African countries most likely will pursue smaller projects that can satisfy some of their local energy requirements.

  19. Backorder
    December 31, 2010

    Bolaji, Could you please point me to some resource where we can find how viable the battery transportation model is against convetional power transmission. I assume we have and are currently investing huge sums in transmission facilities. Is there a strong reason for not considering to store and transport, because I dont come across supporters of this at all.

  20. Susan Fourtané
    December 31, 2010

    Backorder, I agree with you. Having a renewable source to provide the necessary energy for the whole planet makes great sense and it should be considered as a good business idea. After all, as things are going it will be the only way out in just a few years' time no matter if people like it or not. There might be a time coming when thinking of something as a good investment or not could be irrelevant as the life on this planet might be at risk. 


  21. Susan Fourtané
    December 31, 2010


    Thanks for a great and interesting article. It is much appreciated. 


  22. bolaji ojo
    December 31, 2010

    Batteries would only be a temporary solution. The most viable longer-term solution would still be cable transmission, which has high initial installation costs but over time would be more cost-effective for a project of this scale. What Desertec envisions is constant energy generation from the sun. Until the sun burns out, (yikes!) we could conceivably continue to tap it for power for generations. This therefore makes it more sensible to use cable transmission for what could be in service hundreds of years. The advantage batteries have as an interim solution is to allow developers to begin tapping the resource immediately. For the companies involved, this is all about profit and if payday is decades away attracting investors could become difficult.

  23. J-TX
    January 4, 2011

    THis is the way it SHOULD be.  I agree wholeheartedly. 

    The technological, political, economic and logistic problems are so severe, it could only be accomplished thrrough private enterprise.  THink about it.  There will immediately be opposition from displaced and replaced technologies, political entities and eco-nuts.  Yes, the eco-nuts will want to save the Saharan sand flea…..  Then move on to the very real threat of terrorist activity.  If all of Europe is on a solar grid in Africa, there will need to be major NATO embattlements placed all around, and along the “pipeline”, whatever shape it takes.

    Only an entity as rich as Microsoft / Intel oould get this off the ground, using private funding and private security forces and security technology.  If it is left up to government, ANY government, well. I'm sure you can all cite your favorite program that bureaucracy has dealt the death blow….

  24. Ms. Daisy
    January 4, 2011

    The thought that the technological, political, economic and logistic problems should and will be solved by private entities may be oversimplifying the solutions to this monumental task of harnessing solar energy and transporting it over thousands of miles. To harness the energy is the easier of the 2 issues.

    Like Bolaji stated in his response, investors will be reluctant to wait for a decade for returns on investments and I don't believe Microsoft and Intel will be philantropic in this regard either. So my suggested soultion is a partnership between the local governments and the private investors.

    In terms of security, let us take a leaf of learning from our plight in IRAQ and Afghanistan. No amount of foreign military forces will be adequate to man the desert. The hostile terrain and unforgiving weather fluctuations will be insurmontable for any foreign force, and if I might add will add to the animosity of “occupation” by the West. So let us back off that one and use structured “human relationship building” with the local governments; layered with a good measure good old diplomacy, respect, and business negotiations. The respect I am referring to is in terms of investors assigning adequate value to raw materials harnessed and balanced to the cost of energy harnessed in order to benefit both the locals and Europe.

    Economist will disagree with me because it sounds too benevolent, but stop and consider the cost of sabottage of transmission lines and lives that will be lost if disenfranchised local communities disrupt all the investments. Which will be greater?

  25. J-TX
    January 5, 2011

    Ms. Daisy;

    I actually have a degree in Economics, and assure you, economists consider all the costs, including the cost of doing nothing.  The latter is the greatest cost of all, as dependency on fossil fuels and their distribution have hampered the technological and social advance of the human race for too many centuries.

    Economists will also tell you that fair market value for natural resources reduces the risk of an interruption in production, but does not eliminate it.  Let's face it, there are plenty of small, militant, unstable groups out there doing bad for bad's sake.  It is disingenuous to assume that as long as everyone is treated 'fairly' there will be no security risk.  “human relationship building” doesn't work with inhumane terrorist organizations bent on the idealogical, political, religious and economic overthrow of the West.

    My only point was that this is an ideal solution, but far too complex to be carried out by any single government or group of governments.  I disagree that private enterprise won't wait for a payday.  How long did it take for PCs to pay off big?  ~10 yrs.  Flat screen TVs?  ~10 yrs.

    How about this scenario?  All the current producers of electricity in Europe / Eurasia who want a clean, eternally-renewable supply of electricity get together and form a joint venture, with investment based on current (pun!) and projected future electricity delivery needs.  One representative from each company has a voice on a voting council, with vote value tied to the level of investment.  Keep Socialist economies / governments out of it.  Oh, wait, that would exclude half of Europe…..

    Security will be a drop in the bucket, compared to construction and transmission costs, and could be accomplished mostly with drone aircraft, but also must be run privately.

  26. Ms. Daisy
    January 5, 2011


    I appreciated the economical and logical discussion you put forth at the earlier part of your discusion, but I must confess I was put off by the typical arrogance of the West that you stated at the end “Security will be a drop in the bucket, compared to construction and transmission costs, and could be accomplished mostly with drone aircraft , but also must be run privately”.

    The idea of a voting council to vote on investment and the vote value tied to level of investment is good for the investing partners, what is the vote value of the host nations from whose land the resources are mined?

    The issue I keep referring to is the fact that the solar energy which Europe and the West need is in sorveign countries whose air space and land need to be respected. The usual “match over” governments and the people of developing nations to get natural resources that the West needs is unacceptable.

  27. stochastic excursion
    January 7, 2011

    Been digging around re this topic and hard figures certainly do not abound. 

    If you believe Desertec, their transmission scheme (HVDC) has an efficiency loss of only 3% over a 1000km distance.  HVDC, though, can only be used for long-haul transmission and must couple to an AC distribution network.  Also, the 10,000 MW of sunlight available to a 25 square kilometer site (the size of the recent California project) is planned to be converted to heat, then electricity through turbines. 

    Efficiency losses might very well make this project a bad investment. The article seems like good source of hope, but without an up-front discussion on efficiency, it's more like a source of hype.

  28. hwong
    January 21, 2011

    Your point is right on. The ROI doens't seem to justify the cost of investing this transfer. However, if the scientists can develop better solutions maybe that will help with justification. But it is true that we have to start looking at these options because eventually our cgreat great great grand children will reply upon how we treat our earth now.

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