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Harnessing Deserts to Power the World

Harnessing Deserts to Power the World

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.

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Jasmine Greene

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74 comments

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4:52PM PST on Feb 27, 2014

A large project maybe useful for those with a large city -- still rooftops are and individual ownership maybe the ticket -- with trained specialist to come work on the system -- much as they do to come work on some of our heating and cooling systems at this time.

What is right with small projects that are at home!

1. No Power lines -- and no energy losses!
2. Less impact on the earth. Minimum damage to ecosystems, vegetation, and all the earth.

10:03PM PST on Feb 1, 2011

Good ideas, but the problem isn't that they can't work out the kinks. It is that the oil and coal companies will do ANYTHING to keep their production rolling. RENEWABLE energy is less expensive in the long run than energy one uses up.

6:56PM PST on Dec 20, 2010

interesting, but we'll have to see how it goes....

4:02AM PST on Dec 20, 2010

Although a great idea each one of us still needs to look into taking care of ourselves. Using less and trying to provide for what we do use by reclaiming water, solar, on demand heaters, wind generators and even cooking with the sun. At the same time we need to find something to power civilization. I think the sun, the wind and the tide are all good ideas.

Thanks for the article.

3:31PM PST on Dec 16, 2010

Very Interesting. Thank You for the post. If this CSP can change salt water to potable water, this could be huge! The mid southwest could have the water they need. Can it really be done? Why has it taken so long? Does it have to do with not being able to make solar from sand??? I am excited that maybe this is getting closer to actually coming true!!!!

1:46AM PST on Dec 15, 2010

Noted!!

11:06PM PST on Dec 13, 2010

90% of the population lives within 3000 km??? what does that mean?

good idea to harness energy in the desert, a bit sci-fi though. to do such a thing, the infrastructure (not only the powerlines) needs to be built in very inaccessible and difficult terrain. what would the impact to the fauna in the desert be? not to mention that sand dunes are constantly moving. the true reason for doing this sort of thing is cheap real estate in a far and remote area that needs expensive infrastructure and maintenance for which the consumers will pay. This is not for the benefit of humanity. If it were, the companies would rent roof-tops in Florida and Texas for example, close to the consumer, thus eliminating infrastructure issues. But that would not be making as much money as, let's say a sci-fi solar field in the Sahara.

Wind is cheaper and could potentially be a better answer. Perhaps the wind farms could be designed in order to lessen the Saharan dust blown across the Atlantic which has been shown to contribute to coral reef degradation in the Caribbean. I found this article while writing this comment: http://www.saharawind.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=29&Itemid=46

10:20PM PST on Dec 13, 2010

Great article., Innovative thanx

9:53AM PST on Dec 13, 2010

I would buy a dessert if I could .. I dont know why the hell politicians ( yet again ) wont see it.

1:08AM PST on Dec 13, 2010

2050 is too late - we need to fast-track these sorts of projects. We should have been starting with this stuff back in the 70s - yes the technology would have been more primitive but imagine how much further ahead we'd now be, and how less dire the outlook would be.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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