Can Africa’s Sun Provide Power for Europe?

by , 12/05/07

africa solar plan, EU solar, european solar power, desertec, global solar panels, global solar, global renewable energy

Proving that we really are all in this together, Europe is considering plans to spend more than £5 billion on a system of large solar power stations in North Africa. This proposed solar power plan could provide the EU with a sixth of its electricity needs, and, as a bonus, provide fresh water to African nations. Though Europe would be the beneficiary, the panels and power stations would be placed along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East, with the electricity transmitted via underwater cables to EU nations.

The plan, named Desertec, would produce billions of watts of power, providing Europe with a sixth of its electricity needs while significantly cutting carbon emissions. The northern Africa stations would also be used as desalination plants to provide African countries with fresh water.

While you may be skeptical of the outsourcing of energy production, proponents agree that the desert is an untapped resource of sunlight, and the plan would benefit both Europe and Africa. “We don’t make enough use of deserts,” said physicist Gerhard Knies, co-founder of the scheme. “The sun beats down on them mercilessly during the day, and heats the ground to tremendous temperatures. Then at night that heat is radiated back into the atmosphere. In other words, it is completely wasted. We need to stop that waste and exploit the vast amounts of energy that the sun beams down to us.”

Desertec has garnered support from the EU, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, and other nations in the region. It is currently being developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation.

+ African Sun for EU Power

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  1. robdude August 14, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    I think as others have mentioned we do need become much more efficient in our energy use. Travel, Shelter, food consumption , we need more of a say in how this all just happens. On a political scale, I don’t think beurocrats in closed rooms making descissions on our future is the way forward, full public descussion we really need to be in this together.

  2. robdude August 14, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    I think this will eventually turn Africa into a a very powerfull continent. I believe we will see a change in the political will towards Africa. One thing you can be sure of is change!

  3. Cat Laine January 2, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    FYI: The Guardian posted this correction re the top photograph.
    “Additionally, the photograph accompanying this article shows solar panels used in Munich that employ a technology unrelated to the concentrated solar power technology discussed in this article.”

  4. Andrew H Mackay December 7, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    This is a ridiculous idea because it will not generate at night. The use of saline solar ponds is a much better idea because electricity and potable water can be produced continuously 24/7

    Some work in this area has already been developed in Scotland using Gentec venturi’s concept.

  5. Michael December 7, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    There is a new world wide web emerging right before our eyes.

    It is a global energy network and, like the internet, it will change our culture, society and how we do business. More importantly, it will alter how we use, transform and exchange energy.

    For more information, see

  6. Anders December 7, 2007 at 8:34 am

    Well, as a development project it might make sense, but as an energy “production” project for Europe it is rather ridiculous… I recently read somewhere (sorry, I have forgotten the source) that this idea is not viable economically due to, for example, the huge transmission losses incurred. First, the distance from the production site to the closest European shore is very large. Second, for security reasons, several redundancy lines are required (Europe does not want to put itself in another situation like the current one concerning natural gas imports from Russia). Third, the high energy demand (as well as the production to be replaced) is rather found north of the Alps than south of them.
    Besides, there are plenty of roof tops, facades, mountain sides, etc in Europe where solar power can be generated locally which, by the way, is usually the best choice of location from a systemic sustainability perspective. Of course, local production probably would make much of the currently existing energy industry obsolete eventually, and is not in the interest of this powerful lobbying group. I am sure they would much prefer a solution like the one described in this posting…

  7. Erik van Lennep December 6, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    Well, my first response was, “looks like the north grabbing one more resource from the south”, but looking a bit closer at one of the background articles in the Guardian, “How Africa’s desert sun can bring Europe power” the deal seems a bit more sound . The EU would only be using 30% of the power generated, the rest used in a North African grid, and the leftover heat used to distill drinking water from seawater, which would be a lot less expensive and energy intensive than reverse osmosis.

    And the idea stimulates some interesting speculation: would the economic arrangements inspire a bridging of political and cultural gaps between the regions? Old school thinking about resources and security make it seem vulnerable, but surely an enlightened view would show that collaboration builds security and peace through interdependence.

    What about all the salt residue from desalination? Where will that be dumped? Causing what impacts on such a scale? Could a meaningful quantity be shipped (under sail, and thus by wind power) to the north Atlantic to help counteract dilution of the Gulf Stream “conveyor belt” due to melting polar ice?

    What about the land under the reflectors? It will be shaded and cooler. Could the dishes be raised up sufficiently to allow cultivation in their shadows? There will be fresh water available….

  8. Nick Simpson December 6, 2007 at 9:42 am

    Pretty obvious reason why not James – because most of Europe isn’t the sort of desert space that we’re talking about, so the effectiveness of huge solar farms this side of the Mediterranean isn’t as worthwhile. I don’t see that this is the same as plundering these countries – it’s a constant and renewable resource, that it currently of no use to them. I see no reason why enough of these plants can’t be created to feed electricity to Europe AND the North African countries, ensuring everyone gains.

    As for the clean water, I also don’t see the problem. If they’re short of it, which they often are, then someone will have to pay for it – surely they’d be over the moon to swap unusable land for it?

    I do however completely agree that the first step must be to reduce demand, increase efficiency, but the European countries are ahead of everyone else when it comes to pushing for this so hopefully this will come regardless.

  9. Andrew December 6, 2007 at 5:41 am

    James I most agree with you, on what is being given in return for this massive source of power and investment. While this is the kind of idea needed to lessen air pollution in our present world and for a safer environment which I strongly support, this is like a modernized form of how the greater powers that be takes advantage of the lesser more vulnerable countries in this case Africa who has been a victim of this for as far as one ca remember. What is been paid for in return is far too little, very unreasonable for the billions to be saved in the long run. One has to be realistic and see Africa is a dying nation with great potential and only needs some help so they can learn to tap into their many resources which would eventually benefit us all, but not taking advantage of them this is just wrong give the people more in return.

  10. kenneth December 6, 2007 at 3:35 am

    I dont know where all the previous respondents are from, but I live in Africa, and whilst I am always keen for development and investment from abroad – especially “sustainable” development – I am more pleased about the fact that most of comments made on this topic so far are sober and realistic. It is good to see that people are not blind or ignorant of the exploitative past & present when it comes to third world ‘investments’. Not to say that I don’t find merit in this particular proposal, or that I am not grateful for the interest in Africa – but good to see that there are critical eyes watching such developments.

  11. James Shaw December 5, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    I agree with Brian, I love the idea and usage of solar power and all the other element harvesting methods to generate electricity, but the article stated that in return for (in the long run) FREE electricity for Europe, Africa gets clean drinking water. That sounds to me like only giving someone a meal in return for a house. Surely they should already have clean water, it is obviously so possible to do this in the 21st Century if we used one fraction of our war budget. Why not let the solar panels power all the places in Africa that don’t have electricity, and let Europe use it’s own land to build solar panel farms. If I’m wrong then let me know why, cos I’d love to know if what I’m saying is obviously way out.

  12. Warren Brooke December 5, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    Currently powerful nations go to other countries prospecting for oil to satisfy their energy requirements. Countries who are uniquely blessed with lots of oil get to sell that resource to the countries who have not enough. Of course the world suffers from pollution, build-up of greenhouse gases, and wars fought over dwindling non-renewable resources.

    A desert can be a curse to a country, with large areas of un-farmable land where it is extremely difficult to live. But in terms of solar resources, what a blessing a desert is! You have nearly 100% clear skies, favourable insolation, and your power plant does not displace people or compete with farmland. Hey presto! Why should the people of desert nations not be allowed to tap their abundant non-polluting, non-fossil energy resources and sell to those nations where large-scale solar power is not possible?

  13. aloyd December 5, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    I understand your sentiments, Brian. There is no doubt that the main focus should be on using less, not borrowing more to use more. And, as you said, western civilization as a whole has an embarrassing history of exploitation, whether it be in the name of progress, religion, globalization.

    However, I am much less embarrassed about a system of negotiated payments, compensating these countries for producing energy that is, no one can deny, much cleaner than the current forms.

    Overall, I am very optimistic about solar and wind power, not only from this article but also from the recent posting of the nanosolar technology. Should solar and wind power come to be competitive in price with coal and other dirty, damaging forms of energy, I see a light at the end of this dark tunnel of nature’s destruction.

    When we learn to work with Nature, and not in spite of Her, I have hope for a brighter future.

  14. : : : s h u b i d u b i... December 5, 2007 at 11:32 am

    […] Can Africa’s Sun Provide Power for Europe? Vía: […]

  15. Brian December 5, 2007 at 10:51 am

    I can´t agree less. I don´t even know what to call this. We in powerful countries are so used to taking the resources of weak countries we don´t think twice, even on a sustainability blog. Can someone explain the difference between this and taking their oil, sugar, or labor? The past would say, huge financial gain for the powerful country, and generally promised but not delivered benefits for the weaker one – not to mention that even if they are/were delivered, the bread crumbs of your country´s resources don´t quite fill your stomach the same as the bread that your neighbor stole. The main difference (I´m waiting for someone to say) is that the sun is a never-ending resource, right? Unlike gold plundered from the Americas, the sun is limitless. And the land used, the labor to build, the wealth generated, who will benefit? It´s a nice idea saying that the world is one big happy family and we´re going to be a truly global community and share. However, anyone with a trace of history in their thoughts will have some ideas about where this ends up. Also, shouldn´t we be promoting that people take responsibility for their own? Take a step back and look at it. One country uses too much energy to be sustainable. They then go to another country to get what they need, because they can´t figure out how to be sustainable themselves. They don´t have enough of one thing, so they go to someone else to get it (whether that be asking, taking, or ¨borrowing¨). Sound familiar to anybody else?

  16. Nick Simpson December 5, 2007 at 10:15 am

    Seems entirely straightforward to me. Might also be a good location for several of those huge solar wind chimneys (anyone remember the thing I’m refering to?) where air heated in the sun within a massive greenhouse shoots up a mile-high chimney, with wind turbines creating energy from the updraft.

    Either way, this will come down to political stability, although this hopefully shouldn’t be a problem. Besides, it doesn’t matter who uses the electricity, as long as it’s electricity that would otherwise have been created through the burning of fossil fuels.

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