"Big Solar" may take on a whole new meaning if Desertec, the most ambitious solar thermal plan ever conceived, gets funded.
Its architects claim they can build a supergrid of concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP) that can meet most of Europe's current electricity needs by using just 0.3 percent of the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – and at a cost less than oil.
The long-term prospects look even sunnier.
For an investment of $400 billion over 30 years, Desertec could eventually power Europe plus two-thirds of the MENA countries by 2050, while dramatically cutting C02 emissions and phasing out nuclear power at the same time.
That’s a sizeable chunk of the whole world’s energy needs. And for only $13 billion per year.
What a bargain, if you consider that building a single nuclear power plant in Europe carries a price tag of around $2.5 to $3.5 billion these days.
Desertec was developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation, the brain child of the Club of Rome, with support from the German Aerospace Bureau, among other influentials.
And it was created with this idea in mind: the solar energy available for harvest in the world’s deserts is 700 times the amount of energy needed to sustain the Earth’s population.
If the EU is charmed into supporting it, the desert lands of the MENA countries will bloom with hundreds, and eventually thousands, of arrays of solar mirrors that will generate an enormous 100 GW of exportable solar – with the potential for substantially more.
Too good to be true? Not anymore.
Skyrocketing fuel prices and the mounting reality of a peak oil future have made Desertec economically attractive for the first time since it was conceived back in 2003.
And it doesn’t hurt that the project carries a built-in bonus: drinking water. The plan aims to use the waste heat from the solar power plants for thermal desalination to create clean water for host countries.
The biggest snag is how to transmit the power to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea without losing mass amounts of energy during underwater transit. But Desertrec has already come up with the fix: clean electrical power via High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines that will cause reasonable losses of 10 to 15 percent from Africa to Europe.
Still, the EU hasn't bought into it -- not yet. And Desertec needs Europe to invest big and early.
The European Parliament has asked Desertec for more specifics, especially how it will protect investors from financial losses when political instability strikes the MENA region.
In the meantime, the EU would be wise to back a Desertec demonstration project that would create a favorable economic framework for public and private investment in the long term.
If not, Europe may miss a lucrative opportunity to shape the future of desert solar, and its own energy economy.
Prince Hassan bin Talal from Jordan, former President of The Club of Rome and one of Desertec's most prominent supporters, offers this reminder to Europe:
"Such a win-win cooperation between the European Union and its southern and eastern Mediterranean neighbours is reminiscent of the Union for Coal and Steel in Europe founded some 60 years ago, which led Europe into a prosperous and peaceful future."
And if not the EU, then somebody else.
In the next 12 years alone companies will spend between $80 billion and $200 billion on CSP installations, according to a new report by Prometheus Institute and Greentech Media.
That includes more than $30 billion worth of new plants that companies have announced just in the last six months.