The Utopian Dream of Covering the Sahara with Solar Panels

In the year 1986, there was a power surge that occurred during a safety check at the Chernobyl reactor which led to a catastrophic explosion. In all, there were 31 total people killed directly from the explosion and from the original dose of radiation, and quite a few more people most likely died from the fallout. And then there was the Fukushima incident that occurred in the year 2011, which represented the second of two major nuclear power catastrophes. Since those occurrences, worldwide support for nuclear power has greatly fallen.

Alternatives to Nuclear Power?

However in Germany, a particle physicist named asked but one simple question. All fossil fuels like coal, oil, and even natural gas eventually all flowed from the energy of the sun. Yes, it took a roundabout path to become energy – such as straight through animals and plants, and even buried in the ground for a several thousand years to get to us. The uranium responsible for fueling nuclear plants was also created as a byproduct in the nuclear fusion found in stars. So would this not be simpler and easier to get energy straight from the sun?

Using calculations on a simple envelope, Knies showed that in only six hours, the deserts of the world get more solar energy than which is consumed by the human race across an entire year. Therefore, all the energy needed by the entire world could be collected by simply covering only 1.2% of the vast Sahara desert with solar panels. And Knies probably did not even think about carbon emissions—only the fact that our fossil fuels would be depleted one day—but the fact is that climate change could be an even bigger motivation for adopting such a project. And it really seems simple. Knies himself did get very frustrated by it, asking, “Are we, as a species, really so stupid as to not make a better use of this resource?”

The big problem is that it can be very tough to convince others to invest in a grand scheme—and one requiring quite a bit of funding before any type of profit is realized—but the Desertec initiative was actually a very real attempt to show that this could actually work.

This plan was to place solar panels within the Sahara to power a large portion of needs required by the Middle East and North Africa. And there was also enough energy left for exporting about 15% of the energy to Europe. And the Europeans would actually save money on their own energy needs—so it was a win for everyone.

This Desertec project started in the year 2009. It had no problems getting industrial partners which included Deutsche Bank, EON, and Siemens. These investment funds was direly needed as the project would cost around €400 billion. However, the project stalled and by the year 2014, the seventeen original partners had shrank to only three partners.

So what exactly happened to Desertec? There was actually a combination of two different kinds of factors. The first are the same old issues that have always plagued transitions to renewable energy for several decades now. The second issue was the unique logistical and geopolitical challenges of getting solar panels into the Sahara.

Bridging the Gaps

Let us look at the issues with the renewable energy. The initial Desertec plan called for central power station to provide electricity over the three countries, but moving that electrical power across these vast distances can be a huge problem.