The International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently declared that over 26% of the world’s energy supply will come from renewable energy sources by 2020. The organization will therefore no doubt welcome Morocco’s recent initiative to build a huge swath of sunlight traps in its section of the Sahara desert. Along with hydroelectric and wind power, the North African nation will hope that its four mega solar power plants will provide almost half of its electricity by the end of the decade, as reported by the Guardian.
When the full solar power complex is fully operational, it will be the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world; its first phase – Noor 1 – is to go live next month, complete with half a million crescent-shaped solar mirrors, generating enough energy to power a million homes.
By focusing the sunlight onto a small area, the light is concentrated, driving a heat engine – a steam turbine in this case – that is connected to an electrical power generator. The entire complex aims to produce 560 megawatts of energy. Its heat engine contains steel pipes filled with a “heat transfer solution”: It contains molten sands that can store thermal energy for up to 3 hours, meaning that the complex will be able to continue generating electricity from sunlight even at night.
Noor 2 and 3, which are due to open in 2017, will be able to store energy for up to 8 hours, meaning that the region’s infrastructure could be powered 24 hours a day by solar power.
When complete, the $9 billion (£6 billion) renewable energy project will considerably change the way Morocco gets its energy. “We are not an oil producer. We import 94% of our energy as fossil fuels from abroad and that has big consequences for our state budget,” Hakima el-Haite, the Moroccan environment minister, told the Guardian. “We also used to subsidize fossil fuels, which have a heavy cost, so when we heard about the potential of solar energy, we thought; why not?”
Remarkably, the entirety of the world’s energy demand could be powered entirely by solar power generated from this region. Even if just one-eighteenth of the largely-uninhabited Sahara desert was covered in photovoltaic solar cells, it would produce enough power to satisfy the energy demand of all of Europe and Northern Africa. Although there isn’t yet a global scale storage technology for holding solar power overnight, the possibility of powering the entire world by covering just part of the Sahara desert in solar power plants is incredibly tantalizing.
Unfortunately, there is a greater problem to consider here: the Sahara is shared between eleven African nations, all of which vary from stable to incredibly volatile from year to year. Setting up a global initiative to power the world through solar energy would require a wide-ranging, unprecedented agreement between these nations and the rest of the world; politics, conflict, and current technology limitations mean that, for now, this will remain nothing more than an ideal.