The Sahara – Powerhouse of Solar Energy

In my last week’s post, I wrote about the introduction and buildout of solar ovens in Africa which was one indicator of my today’s entry. I talked about the advantages and the sustainability of these tools, that surely have a big impact on the African population and ecology but if we take the sun as a source of energy, trust me, it can do way more than what I’ve talked about so far.

It’s based on the right concept that says “start small, grow as you go“. As I mentioned last week, the approach to implement solar ovens in the every day life of geographically remoted and electrically isolated farmers, has turned out to be a huge success, refering to the cost-benefit ratio as well as the added value. If we had to set up an equation for the poor it would be: a little=a lot.

Is Africa suited for Solar Energy?

The introduction of solar ovens is a microsocial and –economical aspect but what I’ve been wondering about for the last week is if solar energy is also applicable to macroeconomic and -social facets. How can countries and continents benefit from African  solar energy?

Have a look at the following graph.

This map indubitably reveals the potential of solar energy in Africa. As you can see irradiance of the African continent is one of the world’s highest. Meghan Simonds writes about “Africa’s abundance of solar energy“. Though the whole continent seems to face extremely high irradiance, there are two spots that stand out. It’s the deserts. Besides the Kalahari desert which marks the dark spot in the south, it’s predominantely the Sahara that could become Africa’s powerhouse for solar energy. Dr. Gerhard Knies, co-founder of TREC, believes in deserts:

“we could meet the entire world’s energy needs by covering a fraction of the world’s deserts — just 0.5 percent — with concentrated solar power plants.”

The Foundation of Desertec

Knies’ research and assumptions eventually resulted in a project called Desertec. It’s aiming for a massive network of wind and solar farms that could connect to Europe via high voltage direct current transmission cables. “These cables are supposed to only lose 3% of their electricity per 1000km“, Charis Michelsen states.

An Unattainable Dream?

While others still regard Desertec as an unattainable dream, big companies such as E.ON or Siemens have joined the project establishing the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii). Especially after Germany has announced to dismantle its nuclear power plants, the project seems like the perfect solution in order to gain energy. Is it a German project?

“Yes, the initiative came from Germany. But there are 15 different nationalities involved, including companies such as HSBC and Morgan Stanley. This is just the start”,

Paul van Son, Dii’s CEO, answers.

It’s not a Walk in the Park!

Due to the harsh weather conditions in the desert, maintaining the troughs turns out to be the biggest problem the project has to face. High winds and sandstorms let the scientists hit problems. Bodo Becker, the operations manager at Flagsol, declares tough numbers:

“Due to the dusty conditions, we are witnessing about 2% degradation every day in performance, so we need to clean them daily. We use about 39 cubic metres of demineralised water each day for cleaning across the whole site.”

39 cubic metres, that equals 10.300 gallons of water which is  38.989 liter of water each day. Taking into consideration the general lack of water in deserts, this number seems unimaginable.

Exploitation or Mutual Benefit?

Although the project could be seen as the solution of one of the world’s biggest problems, it encounters resistance, especially by Africans. Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe of the African Network for Solar Energy points out why:

“Many Africans are sceptical [about Desertec],” he said. “[Europeans] make promises, but at the end of the day, they bring their engineers, they bring their equipment, and they go. It’s a new form of resource exploitation, just like in the past.”

Despite all that, the truth is Europe does benefit from Desertec, but so does every African country. Since the plans include a massive network, it seeks after a fair distribution of energy.

This project, to me, seems finally like a great and effective approach to cover the world’s demand with natural, sustainable energy. With time, new improvements and methods will contribute to a more effective and efficient production of solar energy which will in fact result in less waste and destruction.