An ambitious scheme to build a number of solar power stations along the Mediterranean shores of the Middle East and northern Africa could generate enough electricity to supply one sixth of the European Union's needs. The generators, individually fitted with thousands of mirrors, would transmit the electricity by undersea cable to Europe, from which it would be distributed EU member states.
In addition, the stations, which could soon be capable of generating 100-MW, would be used as desalination facilities to provide desert countries with much-needed supplies of fresh water. The scheme, known as Desertec, was unveiled last week by Jordan's Prince Hassan bin Talal; it was developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation and is being supported by countries throughout Africa and the Middle East.
"We don't make enough use of deserts. The sun beats down on them mercilessly during the day and heats the ground to tremendous temperatures. Then at night that heat is radiated back into the atmosphere. In other words, it is completely wasted. We need to stop that waste and exploit the vast amounts of energy that the sun beams down to us," said Gerhard Knies, co-founder of Desertec.
The project would rely on a technique called "concentrating solar power" (CSP) to generate electricity; a CSP station uses hundreds of huge mirrors covering a vast swathe of land to focus the sun's rays onto a central metal pillar filled with water. The super-hot water, which can reach temperatures as high as 800°C, is then vaporized and channelled off to drive turbines that produce the electricity.
But that's not all: the steam could then be piped through sea water tanks to boil and vaporize their contents - with the resulting steam being condensed and stored away as fresh water. "Our solar power plants will not only generate electricity that they can sell to Europe, they will supply drinkable water that will sustain their thirsty populations," said Knies.
The only major downside currently is the cost of running these plants - almost twice that of coal-powered plants - a problem Knies explains will be resolved in time as improvements in the technology help to bring expenses in line with conventional power plants. That and the fact that Desertec didn't exactly pick the most stable region of the world to implement its project.