If just 0.3% of the Saharan Desert was used for a concentrating solar plant, it would produce enough power to provide all of Europe with clean renewable energy. That is why 20 blue chip German companies are gathering together next month to discuss plans and investments to create such a massive project. Both the meeting and project are being promoted by the Desertec Foundation, which is proposing to erect 100 GW of concentrating solar power plants throughout Northern Africa.

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The red squares in the above map represent the land area necessary to meet the energy demand of the world, the EU and MENA in 2005. The last square represents the land necessary for the proposed project to generate 100 GW of concentrating solar power. The project being proposed by Desertec would not all be situated in one location, but scattered throughout politically stable countries. Taken as a whole, the project qualifies as the world’s largest solar installation – 80 times larger than the PG&E and BrightSource project planned for the Mojave Desert. The power generated would be transported over high-voltage DC lines across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, where it would supply 15% of the energy demand. The project is still 10-15 years from going online, but that’s why major players are getting started now.

Companies like Siemens, Deutsche Bank, energy companies RWE and E.on, as well as the German insurer Munich Re are all interested in getting involved despite the financial crisis. All of the companies claim that this is how they are fighting back against climate change, and that in order to avoid an energy crisis in 2050 they have to start building now. To build the 100 GWs worth of solar power a total of €400bn investment is needed.

Even more frightening than the energy crisis is the water scarcity that is set to occur even sooner. Taking this into account, the project hopes to combine desalination plants and agriculture along with the solar plants to provide fresh drinking water and grow crops in arid desert region. Concentrated solar power will provide energy and waste heat to create freshwater from seawater. Some of that water would then be used to irrigate nearby crops, while the rest would supply fresh drinking water to local populations. This concept is very similar to the Sahara Forest Project, which we explored last year.

Herman Scheer, President of the European Association for Renewable Energy is disappointed that these companies are considering such large scale projects and not distributed generation at the demand centers, and says that the Desertec project is “highly problematic” due to sand storms, dealing with foreign countries, meeting deadlines and so on. Others contend that large scale projects such as this are the fastest way to meet our energy demands and are a far better option than continuing buring fossil fuels. We’ll certainly be keeping tabs on this exciting project to see how it progresses.

Via Next 100