A look at the list of the World\’s 50 largest electricity-producing solar power stations is quite startling – every single one of them was completed between 2008 and now. A further look at the pending projects over the next few years shows that this growth certainly isn\’t going to halt anytime soon – there are some enormous projects currently in planning, potentially quadrupling the world\’s large-scale solar capacity between now and 2019!
A German-led non-profit foundation, “Desertec”, aims to meet 15% of Europe\’s electricity supply by 2050 through a network of vast solar panel farms across the Mena region of the Sahara desert. Indeed, if all the solar energy that reached the Sahara could be captured, mankind\’s annual electricity use could be met in just 6 hours.
The first parts of this ambitious project are already under construction – there is a 2,000MW Tunisian installation currently underway. To put that figure into context, it\’s the equivalent of two nuclear power plants, or 10 times the size of the world\’s current largest solar farm. This project is enormous, and perhaps most excitingly, it will start producing electricity by 2016.
It seems like something out of science fiction, but technological improvements mean that the ever increasing efficiency of solar panels, in terms of electricity produced and their manufacturing costs, combine to make it economically viable. Last year, the Fukushima disaster lead to the German government announcing that it would expedite its phasing out of nuclear energy, pushing the concept from an idea into reality.
However, the Sahara is a desert, with a very sparse population – is it really possible to transport the electricity thousands of kilometers to mainland Europe? Special high-voltage direct-current power cables are being installed. This means that there is not much flow of current, but there is very large “electrical pressure”, causing minimal losses. Only 3% of the electricity produced will be lost for each 1,000km that it is transported.
The main issue is the finance required – while solar panels offer extremely low ongoing costs, they require a large investment upfront. Desertec\’s estimated costs total $400bn. In context, that\’s 400 times more than Facebook\’s profits last year, more than 10 times the money made by Google, and 7 times too expensive for Bill Gates to buy anytime soon. It\’s the same amount that Europe spent on oil imports last year.
While the future of Desertec looks bright, its development will present ongoing challenges. Any centralized power station could be subject to a terrorist attack. Not only does it represent an attractive target due to the great publicity surrounding it, but this would be especially serious in the case of Desertec because of the expense it could cause due to the size of the investment.
The necessity of transporting electricity over great distances is a potential problem too. While this can be carried out efficiently, there is a very difficult security requirement over vast distances. These risks are greater in this case than for the other large scale solar projects because they don\’t require such long distance transport of their electricity.
However, the combination of the much larger reduction in carbon emissions due to its scale and the perfect weather conditions in the Sahara, means the benefits of the scheme clearly outweigh the disadvantages. The main challenge in renewable energy will be encouraging further large-scale renewable projects across other parts of the world, and the Desertec project is likely to be the perfect model to copy elsewhere.
Author James Hawkins is from a cost comparison company for solar panels in the UK. Since graduating from Cambridge University two years ago, James has been the editor of the company\’s solar news blog