The Desertec Solar Project which is proposed to span North Africa, The Middle East and Europe while generating 100 gigawatts is the most far reaching and complex renewable energy project ever put to paper. The backbone of the project will be massive concentrating solar-thermal projects in the Sahara Desert, other areas in North Africa, and the Middle East which will provide Europe, Africa and the Middle East, with electricity delivered through high-voltage direct-current transmission lines.
While primarily a solar project, the plan also incorporates wind farms on coastal areas of Europe and Africa, supplemented by geothermal, photovoltaic, hydropower and biomass projects located predominantly in Europe. The supplemental power producers’ primary role will be to smooth the massive grid’s power production levels.
Technological issues aside, the project has a long list of political, logistical, and financial challenges. It goes without saying that the region’s political landscape is already contentious and full of potential landmines. Regarding logistics, Desertec will likely be comprised of perhaps hundreds of disparate projects linked together by transmission lines crossing borders and continents. Procurement of materials, the setting of electricity standards, and the handling of security issues would be daunting tasks, even without political and religious in-fighting. The biggest financial challenge is the estimated price tag of $555 billion, a number that has a great chance of going higher if the previously mentioned challenges get any more complicated than they already are.
The size of the Desertec’s solar generation capacity would dwarf even the largest of today’s producing solar farms. Solar Energy Generating Systems, located in the Mojave Desert in California, has been the world’s largest solar project since it went online in 1990. The project is made up of nine solar power plants spread out over the Mojave. In total the nine plants produce 354 megawatts of power.
For all its challenges and difficulties, Desertec has drawn a consortium of big players including Siemens, Munich Re, E.ON, RWE and Deutsche Bank to assist in fund raising for the project. The group is giving themselves two years to raise the first tranche of investment money, in part because of the global recession and the financial instability of members in the EU. Even in the best of times, the project would require truckloads of government and private funding to get things started. If funding does not arrive, one possibility is that the project will be broken down into a series of stand-alone operations which could then be linked together as funding materializes. There’s plenty of time, Desertec’s completion isn’t expected until 2050.