Almost a third of the Earth is covered in desert, though the majority of it is icy and rocky versus sandy. Several countries are now looking into harnessing the power of the Sahara desert in order to provide solar energy to the world. The idea comes at a time when the world has hit peak oil and many are looking for alternative sources of energy.
The Japanese and Algerian govenment are currently working on the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, which should hopefully be completed by 2050. The project will use the silica in the sand to create solar panels and then, of course, set up solar panels in the desert to power much of the world. Initially, the energy from the panels would be used to create more solar power plants, but Japanese scientists believe that by 2050, they can create 50 percent of the world’s power (or 100 GW of energy) via DC powerlines using high-temperature conductors. According to the scientists, even if they can utilize only 0.01 percent of the sun’s energy skillfully, there will be a surplus of energy. Of course, the project is not without its setbacks. It will cost around $2 million USD for the following five years, which is still not enough to complete the project. On top of that, scientists must also research how deep they need to bury the superconductors in order to minimize temperature fluctuations in the various climates around the world. There is also no technology that can currently make silicon from desert sand and then transform these into solar cells, which is why Hideo Koinuma hopes to train scientists and engineers from developing countries. Koinuma states, “Because technology hasn’t yet been established for making silicon from desert sand, then using it to make solar cells, our aim is to work together from the basic research stage, so we can discover and nurture talented scientists and engineers in Africa.” Researchers from Japanese and Algerian Universities plan to begin research this year in hopes to answer some of these questions and take into account other natural factors like the effect sandstorms would have on development. [Source: DigInfo].
Japan is not the first country to turn to the Sahara for energy ideas. Countries from the EU have also formed the DESERTEC foundation, which hope to supply energy to the EUMENA region (Europe, Middle East and North Africa) by 2050. Unlike the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, DESERTEC plans to utilize High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines. These lines have been around since the 1930s and has the advantage of losing only 3 percent of energy per 1000 km and has the ability to stabilize between unsynchronized AC distribution systems. More than 90 percent of the people in the world live within 3000 km and thus would be able to see the benefits of the system. Not only would they be running off renewable energy, many people, especially within developing nations, would see more consistent electricity, despite issues of reliability of the HDVC lines. In regards to the energy, DESERTEC does not plan on using photovoltaics, instead, the foundation is focusing on concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) as large amounts of thermal energy can be stored with minimal loss, and thus can be provided on demand day or night. One major benefit of CSPs is that it can also create freshwater from salt. A 250 MW collector field can be used to operate a 200MW turbine, which creates nearly 4 million liters of potable water daily through water desalination. Shade from the collector field could even be used for agricultural purposes. On top of the CSP plants, DESERTEC plans on utilizing wind and hydroelectric power to reliably produce large quantities of energy. Currently, Egypt is already laying down the legislative groundwork for DESERTEC and is in the final stage of formulating a land lease agreement with investors [Source: REVE].
With oil and coal becoming more expensive by the day, countries need to turn to alternative sources of energy to keep the world running. While both ideas have yet to come into fruition, research and ideas such as the Sahara Breeder and DESERTEC could inspire others to follow suit.