The solar power industry has a couple of well-worn factoids it loves to whip out to impress people. One is that the planet receives more energy from the sun in an hour than humanity uses in a year. Another is that 100 square miles (or thereabouts) of solar plants in Arizona could power the entire United States.
Well, here’s a new one: 90,000 square kilometers in the Sahara. That’s how much land it would take, covered in solar thermal power stations, to power all of human civilization, according to Desertec, a partnership of European companies, governments and NGOs which was officially launched on Monday. Desertec aims to build a network of solar plants spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East that would provide a significant percentage (15% or more) of the electricity needs of all three regions.
Apparently anticipating the eye-rolling likely to accompany such an ambitious announcement, Desertec has lined up an impressive array of backers, including Siemens, Munich Re, and 10 other European corporations, as well as Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan.
They are also being pragmatic about the scale of the undertaking, and the incentives to build it. Press material estimates the project could take 40 years to complete, and representatives stress the economic incentives behind the project before the environmental benefits. Which will be key if they hope to have any success: the price tag is currently set at $550 billion.
Already, there are concerns that Desertec is just a new form of “eco-colonialism,” as the German business daily Handelsblatt put it, with the wealthy nations of the developed Global North outsourcing their energy needs – and accompanying problems – to the poor Global South.
In a sign that business’ awareness of these kinds of issues is maturing, Desertec has a ready list of responses to this accusation. They point out that the project would create hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs in Africa, especially in fields like engineering, jobs well-qualified Africans often have to look for overseas.
But one of the thorniest issues facing Desertec, among many, is politics. The schematic presented by the foundation in its press materials has electric transmission lines crossing over at least 15 international borders in one of the most turbulent parts of the world. Getting all of those countries to collaborate will be a diplomatic headache.
Still, one has to applaud Desertec for its moxie. At the very least, the project once again pushes to the front pages a simple fact about energy needs and climate change: solving these problems will have to be a massive, collaborative effort.