Solar energy from the Sahara: When will it be feasible?

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“The EU and its North African partner countries should […] establish the regulatory basis necessary for the development of solar energy in view of offering a reliable and long-term framework for potential investors from both sides of the Mediterranean,” writes Eberhard Rhein, a lecturer at the Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies in Malta, in a June post on Blogactiv.

“For Europe, the Mediterranean and the Sahara desert offer ideal conditions” for development as “solar thermal technology is best suited for large-scale electricity generation in regions with intensive sunshine throughout the year,” writes Rhein.

“There is more than plenty of sunshine and empty space,” he says. “A tiny area of less than 35,000 km² would suffice to supply Europe and North Africa with electricity.”

Nevertheless, “like any new technology, solar thermal power generation poses technical, economic and political problems,” he explains.

Technically, “electricity cannot be stored” and “the thermal impact of solar radiation” is lower in winter when electricity is most needed, he explains. Moreover, “the risk of sand storms […] may temporarily disturb power generation and even damage the mirrors”. 

But, “the single biggest problem is the transmission of electricity over distances of 2000-3000 km,” as transmission losses related to distance generate costs and delay amortisation of investments, Rhein explains.

“Economically, the only real issue is competitiveness,” he says.

“Politically, the newly created ‘Union for the Mediterranean’ puts the joint development of renewable energies among its top priorities,” he writes.

A European consortium, to be formally launched on 13 July, will be “prepared to massively invest in solar thermal power in the Mediterranean,” the blogger predicts.

“In the first stage, the consortium should focus on the North African market and build several 100-200 MW power plants, say in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in partnership with local energy companies,” he writes.

But “it is unlikely for Europe to be supplied with significant volumes of solar electricity from North Africa before 2020,” he explains. “Nothing would be worse than to rush ahead half-prepared,” he insists.

“Indeed, very long lead times are necessary to put in place the new technologies required for transforming our conventional energy supply, whether the transition to non-fossil power generation or the conversion of automobiles from combustion to electric engines,” Rhein concludes. 

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