Solarification of Deserts: the Case of Africa’s Sahara

From the pacific coastlines of the Atacama Desert to the sandy dunes of the Sahara; harvesting the abundant irradiance of the world’s deserts has become an economic necessity for an energy starved world.

On the fringes of Africa’s Sahara desert are numerous energy-deprived countries and communities that would benefit from a large scale solar power project in the desert. While developing the solar power potential of desert irradiance seems natural, the economic and operational implications could be daunting. The complexity could slightly mirror space operations. Procurement and construction has to be carried out in an extreme environment where routine Operation and Maintenance (O&M) as well, could pose serious problems.

Sahara Desert Solarification Process

But there is a strong case and evidence supporting the utilization of what appears to be idle solar resource in the Sahara desert. Over the years, there have been unilateral and concerted plans to power households through Sahara-sourced solar power. From the planned (now botched) DESERTEC project in North Africa, that was designed to go north to power households and businesses in Europe, to the Sahel projects which will go south to light up Sub-Saharan Africa and then the now completed Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) project in Morocco supported by the World Bank.

The dynamics of desert solar project has been proven in several other places in the world. Chile’s solar power project in the Atacama Desert is a great example. The Atacama 1 project in Chile developed by Abengoa is a 210MW solar project with reported capacity to power 410,000 households and also avoid the emission of 870,000 tones of COper year. Several other solar projects are ongoing and planned in the Chilean Atacama, which is located in the north of the country but powers the more populated south and even has a potential for supplying neighbors such as Peru and Bolivia. This model allays the economic and operational concern of long distance power transmission, which is a notable and recurrent hurdle for desert solar projects.

In North Africa an ambitious 4.5GW of desert-sourced solar power is planned by a consortium of clean energy companies. The generated power which is Europe bound will come from a solar plant in Tunisia that could power 5 million households and provide 2,000 direct and 20,000 indirect jobs. Relatedly, the Desert to Power initiative of the African Development Bank is a similar initiative in the Sub-Saharan Africa side of the desert. It plans to provide power to 11 countries via a 10,000MW solar project in the Sahel region, being developed in partnership with other organizations. The bank says it hopes to reach 250 million households under this initiative and a 50MW plant has already started in Burkina Faso.

There are several other viable approaches for nations in the region to harness the immense solar power opportunity in the Sahara desert. One of which is joint development of a high capacity solar power project within the Sahara for cross border transmission to benefiting countries. This is achievable through a coalition that rides on existing power integration networks in the region. Such a project appears promising, although it could raise concerns about energy security and political rivalry which normally makes regional power pool initiatives problematic. It is especially true with countries that have to rely on less friendly neighbors for generated power. Nevertheless, it’s plausible that clean energy, joint generated on relatively neutral territories, and transmitted through regional power pool systems/infrastructures could be attractive to politicians and decision makers.

Sahara Desert Long Distance Electricity Grid Transmission

Although such desert-generated solar power will have to be transmitted over long distances to connect far flung countries, (which adds to the cost and operational complexity of desert solar projects), they remain comparatively cost effective. As a renewable power source, there are no recurrent fuel costs and the cost of extending transmission lines is often lower than building new plants. More so, existing interconnected power frameworks such as the West Africa Power Pool (WAPP), offer a ready infrastructure for sharing solar power generated from the desert. Elsewhere in Central Africa, similar, regional integrated power pool infrastructure is already in existence, to accelerate cross-border transmission. If the technical hurdles to such projects are surmounted, desert solar initiatives can deliver good, economic and environmental benefits.

The Sahara which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Mediterranean Sea in the North and then to the Red Sea in the East has about 10 countries around it - which are mostly energy impoverished.

Desert solar can deliver great environmental benefits. While other renewable sources such as hydropower projects could cause displacement of communities – a significant social and environmental cost – desert solar projects have little or no real displacement capacity for natural settlements. Apart from its inherent lower carbon footprints, some stakeholders argue that it could help to discourage deforestation induced by domestic use of traditional energy by many households.

With respect to the technical and operational constraints of long distance transmission, desert solar still makes technical and economic sense. In the US a good portion of the power supply in Boston reportedly comes from Quebec which is over 1000 miles away. So it’s possible to have solar power generated in the Sahara desert and extended to reach the interior of Sub-Saharan Africa once the political and regulatory constraints that relate to right of way are paved. A unilateral effort to utilise desert solar resource is already seen in Morocco. On the edge of the desert in Morocco is the Ouarzazate thermal solar plant, which covers an area of land same size as Rabat, the country’s capital. The project is part of Morroco’s ambition to generate 42% of its electricity by 2020.

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While it shines so bright in the day within the Sahara Desert, there is a worrisome darkness behind the desert in many Sub-Saharan African countries, where energy poverty has become a menace and a huge limitation to economic growth. comment↓


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