Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan believes that giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean coast of northern Africa and the Middle East could power up to one-sixth of Europe’s electricity. What’s more, the Prince says the stations could function as desalinization plants to provide Africa and the Middle East with fresh water.
Prince Talal calls his plan “Desertec” and has pitched it to the European Parliament and it has the support of many engineers and politicians in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. In the Prince’s view, countries with so much desert should work with the more energy-intensive nations to build a mutually beneficial solar power scheme.
Europe’s initial investment would be about 10 billion dollars for more than 100 generators, fitted with thousands of huge mirrors. Those mirrors would use a technology called “concentrating solar power,” or CSP. A CSP station has several hundred banks of giant mirrors that can be controlled to focus the sunrays on a central metal pillar filled with water. The water then starts to heat up and ends up vaporizing into a superhot steam which drives turbines and makes electricity.
Then the desalinization mechanism kick in. After driving the turbines to make electricity, the steam is piped through tanks of sea water, which then boils and evaporates. Steam from the evaporated sea water is piped off, condensed, and stored as fresh water.
A representative of Desertec says that the technology is “proven”and that they have demonstrated it in smaller test plants. Eventually, Desertec envisions a ring of a thousand solar power plants making up to 100 billion watts of electricity. Two-thirds would be kept for local needs and 30 billion would be transmitted to Europe via an undersea cable (as a comparison, Britain’s total electricity generating capacity is 12 billion watts).
Critics abound, of course. Estimates report that producing electricity this way could cost almost twice what coal power costs, and that makes many skeptical that nations would want to jump into a more expensive power source. Desertec counters that improvements in the next ten years will make it competitive with fossil fuel power.
Next step: The European Parliament has asked Desertec to propose short-term demonstration projects.