Could Europe Get Its Energy From the Sahara?

Energy planners seeking vast open sunny areas to set up solar panel systems are unsurprisingly turning to the vastest, most open sunny area in the world: the Sahara. Could the Saharan Desert provide power for all of Europe? Bradford Plumer of TNR takes a look at the plan and finds some problems.


He writes:

One $573 billion proposal, known as Desertec, has attracted a dozen finance and industrial companies, and its backers claim that the solar arrays could one day satisfy up to 15 percent of Europe's electricity needs.

And Reuters says that Morocco is on board with the idea, in its broad outlines:

The Moroccan government says Desertec could solve Morocco's energy dependency and leave plenty of power for Europe. "Morocco doesn't have even 1 percent of Europe's energy consumption, so let's be realistic," said Said Mouline, the head of Morocco's renewable energy agency. "We would be generating enough power for us, and for export, for the next 100 years."

Some European critics see the future of solar-powered energy in letting a thousand photovoltaic projects bloom all over our (or their) rooftops rather than mandate an expensive, concentrated project in one African country. Solar is neither the most efficient nor the most inexpensive source of alternative energy, and concentrating its production is going to create all the typical problems of monopolies and expensive new transmission lines, in addition to a Moroccan plant potentially being vulnerable to attack. Plumer notes that we're having a similar debate in the States over whether alternative energy investments should to toward the building of huge wind/solar farms across the West or tax incentives for a more "distributed approach." I'm afraid I don't know much about alternative energy politics, but this should be an interesting story to keep our eye on: The emergence of national powerhouses in the alternative energy business.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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