Sahara power for Europe

Sahara solar power is catching the eyes of investors around the world
By: Heather Moore
April 9, 2010

First Solar Inc. has become the first pure photovoltaic company and the first company based in North America to join the green energy cooperative Desertec Industrial Initiative.

The Desertec Industrial Initiative is a group of companies interested in utilizing the Sahara’s sun and wind energy sources to power 15% of Europe by 2050 and a substantial part of the energy needs of the Middle East and North Africa. This conglomerate is set out to determine what the conditions will be to ensure the success of this project.

The Sahara-power project idea has been on the minds of energy pioneers for quite some time. To have the Sahara produce solar energy on such a large scale would be a significant progression in global renewable energy. With a project of such size, many details must be figured out.

To figure out these details and investigate the solar project is where Dii comes in. Now, in the preparation phase, Desertec Industrial Initiative has four main objectives:
• Development of a technical, economic, political and regulatory framework for feasible investments into renewable energy and interconnected grids.
• Origination of reference projects to prove the feasibility.
• Development of a long term roll-out plan for the period up to 2050 providing investment and financing guidance.
• Conduction of specific in-depth studies.

Desertec Industrial Initiative is not, in itself, a solution to the problem of climate
change. It is a step in the direction of ensuring policies, politics and technology can support this project.

About First Solar Inc.

First solar has worked with thin-filmed photovoltaic solar power on large scales. They have built utility-scale solar power plants in the deserts of the United Arab Emirates and also in the area of the company’s Arizonan home-base, in the South-west deserts of the United States. They are currently preparing to create a solar power plant in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia.

First Solar’s experience with large-scale solar power plants and world-wide experience will be a positive attribute to their working with the Desertec Industrial Initiative.

Solar Power Technologies

One aspect of the project that must been decided is what solar energy technologies will be used. The initial idea, as laid out by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC), was to make the project based on Concentrated Solar Power (CSP).

Process of CSP:
“CNN: Just Imagine: Gerhard Knies”

Concentrating solar power uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight and create heat. The heat may be used to raise steam and run steam power plants. According to Dr. Gerhard Knies of TREC, if using concentrated solar power, it is possible to save the solar energy gathered for about a day. During the night time hours, when the power is at a peak low, reserves could be stored. This is different from photovoltaic (PV) power plants where the energy cannot be stored at all and must be used immediately.

During the Sahara day time, when the sun’s rays are most intense, inability to store the power would not be an issue. There would be enough to go around. But during the night time, there would be no power generation with PV and energy consumers would just have to wait to use the power when it’s supplied.

The newest addition to the Desertec Industrial Initiative has different views on renewable energy technology. First Solar Inc. uses photovoltaic (PV) technology. Upon becoming an associate partner with Dii, First Solar Inc. has vowed to prove the capabilities of photovoltaic power.

A photovoltaic company joining the Desertec group is significant because who is to say that combined solar power is the best? Or photovoltaic? Different solar power technologies will help bring Desertec to the final goal. Contrasting views eventually build off each other. PV solar power will not be the only way of collecting energy in the project and nor will CSP. There will most likely be a complimenting combination of both as the end result.


First Solar Inc. is just one of the many international companies that has
recognized the potential of this project and hopes to jump on board. Desertec Industrial Initiative has expanded greatly in the last year as far as members go and hopes to be very international and diversified.

When Dii was originally created last summer in Munich, mostly German companies were the ones involved and even a year later, 9 of the 17 shareholders are German-based. Alexander Mohanty, spokesman for Dii, said, “Desertec Industrial Initiative started in Munich, so it is German by chance. We have always wanted to make it international.”

First Solar Inc. isnot a shareholder of Dii. It is an associated partner. A shareholder must pay €150,000 per year for three years to help with the Desertec conceptual advances and are entitled to voting rights. Dii is a democratic conglomerate of the shareholders. As an associate partner, First Solar Inc. will have to pay a significantly lower fee than a shareholder, but they will also not have any voting rights as far as the project planning is concerned.

First Solar Inc. does not qualify as a possible shareholder because it is not in the region. Like this American-based company, there are Japanese companies that want a piece of the pie. Because of overwhelming response from around the globe, Spokesman Mohanty said, “We can’t let everyone be a shareholder. Then we would have too many companies involved and nothing would get done.”

The only companies that are based in an area that will be affected can be a shareholder. That is to say, it is exclusive for companies in Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.

Shareholders as of March 2010 : ABB; Abengoa Solar, Cevital, DESERTEC Foundation, Deutsche Bank, Enel Green Power, E.ON, HSH Nordband, MAN Solar Millennium, Munich Re, M+W Group, Nareva Holding, Red Eléctrica de España, RWE, Saint-Gobain Solar, SCHOTT Solar, Siemens

Even though First Solar is unable to be a shareholder, as an associate member, the group’s involvement will be very important for their own company. The project is a close cooperation between those involved. The fourth goal of Dii, as listed earlier, is to conduct intensive studies. As an associate member, First Solar Inc. will be able to benefit and learn from these studies to make their own business thrive better.
Long Term Solution

Desertec energy collection areas; copyright: Desertec Foundation

Experts say that renewable energy, like solar power, truly is the future of the world’s energy. However, currently, fossil fuels are less expensive than energy coming from solar power. Professor Markus Spinnler of the Technical University of Munich says that conventional power will get significantly more expensive in the next five years. Spinnler says research shows that in 15 to 20 years, renewable energies will cost less than fossil fuels, “Investment now in a project like Desertec might reduce a future filled with energy poverty.”

Being able to supply 15% of Europe’s electricity from this project seems like quite an ambitious goal, but Professor Spinnler insists it is undeniably reachable. He insists on looking at Germany alone as a good case study, “In Germany, 15% of electricity is just wind power. And Germany is not known for wind. The Sahara is known for sun. It will not be hard.”

As First Solar desires to be a part of the Desertec project, interests have expanded to yet another continent. As Dii expands, the probability of its eventual success does too. First Solar will assist in this renewable energy dream becoming a reality.

About Heather