A solar power plan backed by a Jordanian prince could provide the EU with one-sixth of its electricity needs and cut carbon emissions.
Europe is considering plans to spend more than £5 billion* (US$10.1 billion) on a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East.
More than 100 of the generators, each fitted with thousands of huge mirrors, would generate electricity to be transmitted by undersea cable to Europe and then distributed across the continent to EU member nations.
Billions of watts of power could be generated this way, enough to provide Europe with one-sixth of its electricity needs and to allow it to make significant cuts in its carbon emissions.
At the same time, the stations would be used as desalination plants to provide desert countries with desperately needed supplies of fresh water.
Last week Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan presented details of the scheme -- named Desertec -- to the European Parliament.
"Countries with deserts, countries with high energy demand and countries with technology competence must cooperate," he told the parliament.
The project has been developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation and is supported by engineers and politicians in Europe as well as Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan and other nations in the Middle East and Africa.
Europe would provide initial funds for developing the solar technology that will be needed to run plants as well as money for constructing prototype stations. After that, banks and financial institutions, as well as national governments, would take over the construction program, which could cost more than GBP$200 billion* over the next 30 years.
"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."
Scientists estimate that sunlight could provide 10,000 times the amount of energy needed to fulfil humanity's current energy needs. Transforming that solar radiation into a form to be exploited by humanity is difficult, however.
One solution proposed by the scheme's engineers is to use large areas of land on which to construct their solar plants. In Europe, land is costly. But in nations such as Morocco, Algeria and Libya it is cheap, mainly because they are scorched by the sun. The project aims to exploit that cheap land using a technique known as "concentrating solar power."
A plant consists of banks of several hundred giant mirrors that cover a large area of land of around a square kilometer. Each mirror's position can be carefully controlled to focus the sun's rays onto a central metal pillar that is filled with water. Prototype stations using this technique have already been tested in Spain and Algeria.
Once the sun's rays are focused on the pillar, temperatures inside start to soar to 800 Celcius. The water inside the pillar is vaporized into superhot steam which is channeled off and used to drive turbines, which in turn generate electricity.
"It is proven technology," Knies said. "We have shown it works in our test plants."
Only small stations have been tested, but soon plants capable of generating 100 megawatts of power could be built, enough to provide the needs of a town. The Desertec project envisages a ring of a thousand of these stations being built along the coast of northern Africa and round into the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East. In this way, up to 100 billion watts of power could be generated: Two-thirds of it would be kept for local needs, while the rest -- around 30 billion watts -- would be exported to Europe.
An idea of how much power this represents is revealed through Britain's electricity generating capacity, which totals 12 billion watts.
But there is an added twist to the system. The superheated steam, after it has driven the plant's turbines, would then be piped through tanks of sea water which would boil and evaporate. Steam from the sea water would piped away and condensed and stored as fresh water.
"Essentially you get electricity and fresh water," Knies said. "The latter is going to be crucial for developing countries round the southern Mediterranean and in north Africa. Their populations are rising rapidly, but they have limited supplies of fresh water. Our solar power plants will not only generate electricity that they can sell to Europe, they will supply drinkable water that will sustain their thirsty populations."
There are drawbacks, however. At present electricity generated this way would cost around 15 eurocents to 20 eurocents (US$0.22 to US$0.29) a kilowatt-hour -- almost twice the cost of power generated by coal. At such prices, few nations would be tempted to switch to solar.
"Unless it is extremely cheap, it won't stop people using easy-to-get fossil fuels," John Gibbins, an energy engineer at Imperial College London, told Nature magazine last week.
However, Desertec's backers say improvements over the next decade should bring the cost of power from its plants to less than 10 eurocents a kilowatt-hour, making it competitive with traditionally generated power.
Other critics say that the plants would be built in several unstable states that could cut their supplies to Europe. Again, Knies dismissed the danger.
"It's not like oil. Solar power is gone once it hits your mirrors. It would simply be lost income," he said.
The European Parliament has asked Desertec to propose short-term demonstration projects.
By Robin McKie , THE OBSERVER, LONDON.