Sahara Dessert Solar Energy

In the new millennium, the dream of a German physicist to use the vast Sahara Desert as a vast resource for solar energy grew wings and morphed into Desertec Industrial Initiative—the largest solar project in the world, intended ultimately to supply 15 percent of the electricity needs of Europe as well as many of the host desert countries.[1]

The Desertec Foundation, a German initiated consortium of worldwide investors, is planning to construct 100 GW of multiple solar thermal power plants (also referred to as concentrating solar power).  The anticipated cost is US $550 billion. The entire project is anticipated to take 10 to 15 years to complete, the power facilities are to be spread across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and an energy superhighway will cross the Mediterranean Sea to deliver electricity to Europe.

The German Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance company, is one of the original founders of Desertec Foundation along with Siemens and Deutch bank. U.S. investors include HSBC and Morgan Stanley.  This is a testament by very large financial institutions that they believe this to be a solid investment.  Far be it for me to question the big guns! Yet, I will put a few challenges out there for them to overcome.

As of May 2012, a US $822 million Moroccan 150-MW, 7.4 square mile power plant is under construction.[2]  An earlier publication claims the cost will be US 2.8 billion.[3] There is a big discrepancy in the perceived cost of one facility alone. What will the total Desertec Industrial Initiative cost be at the end of the 10 to 15 year projected completion of the network?  Not only that, but some articles suggest the European delivery will not occur until 2050[4]—38 years from now. Beyond inflation, a lot can happen between now and then.

Before I start into the “things happen” portion of this discussion, I would like to comment on a widely held perception that “going solar will make us oil independent.” This is concept patently ridiculous. In the United States, less than 1.7 percent of electric power is supplied by petroleum. The U.S. uses most of its oil products in transportation, and the last time I check, we can not run transportation vehicles and airplanes on solar energy. Now, back to the discussion at hand.

Others have discussed the “highly problematic” concerns regarding solar thermal facilities in the Sahara Desert and Middle East deserts, and I shall amplify:

  • Sand storms will damage the reflective mirrors. The response to this has been to turn the mirrors away from the wind. Remember the damage sand storms do to helicopters in Iraq.
  • Many of the countries in the Sahara Desert are politically unstable and/or outright hostile to the United States and European countries. When the ugly duckling comes to town, we may at best be forestalled, or worst have the  heads of the colonialists put on the end of a Popsicle stick or served on a silver platter. Expect nothing less wherein infidels attempt to run their profiteering, imperialist practices in sovereign countries.
    • In North Africa, the more politically unstable countries identified for Desertec power facilities are Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Sudan.
    • In the Middle East, the more alarmingly unstable and/or outright hostile countries are Iran, Syria, and Yemen.

Thus, the foible of the future to the Desertec enterprise is unstable, hostile regions. Is this not the definition of insanity?

  • They plan to build an “energy superhighway” across the Mediterranean Sea.  The shortest route (across the Strait of Gibraltar) is 8.7 miles (14 km), the average depth is 4,900 feet, and one of the longer routes appears to be Tunisia, through Sardonia and Corsica, to Italy at approximately 440 miles (780 km).  The depth of the line(s) would have to be below water travel depths and identified for submarines to by-pass or on the sea bed. In the United States, land line transmission lines cost up to $6 million per mile. Imagine what it will cost for sea protected, deep water transmission lines that approximate 1,600 miles of water, intermittent land!  At   land line rates, the cost would be US $9.6 trillion.  I do believe their US $550 billion construction cost is already exceeded with the cost of the energy superhighway alone—just to get across the Mediterranean Sea at land line rates. But maybe, just maybe the cost is not calculated into the cost of construction.  Will it be up to the Europeans to bear the cost of the water superhighway? Is this not the hungry beast that will sink the European economy?
  • Back to the energy superhighway in the Mediterranean Sea—a high power electrical conveyance system in the water looks like an easy terrorist mark to me. They are proud of their ability to destroy, disrupt, and debilitate. What happens to the sea life when the electrical feed continues?  This is a very scary scenario.
  • As they produce steam from water to generate electricity, solar thermal power facilities do require water. Yet, some of the facilities are not identified along coastal lands, not in areas where water appears to be readily accessible.  No water, no electricity
  • Another obstacle that deserves comment is a topic I didn’t see coming and am unclear as to its efficacy.  Yet, a history buff comments on a solar energy blog:

At the moment, there are 22 million unexploded devices buried around the . . . desert as a result of Italian, German and British operations during WW2. 8,000 Bedouins [desert dwellers] have been killed since 1945. . .The world has deemed mine clearance too expensive. . .

Indeed, this sounds a bit odd, but sometimes the devil is in the details—that have been overlooked.

There is considerable excitement gathering around the Desertec concept that is based on publicity, hopes and dreams. It would be a tragedy indeed to have misguided faith in a group of financiers bearing gifts of salvation.


[1] Moore, Michael S.:  “Massive Saharan Solar Project Leaves U.S. in Shade.” European Dispatch (Jul 22, 2009).

[2] Timon Singh:  The World’s 6 Coolest Solar Powered Projects. (1/8/2012)

[3] Susan Kraemer:  Desertec Begins: 500 MW Morrocan Solar in 2012. Green Prophet (11/1/2011)

[4] Timon Singh:  The World’s 6 Coolest Solar Powered Projects. (1/8/2012)