DESERTEC: energy for the planet

The DESERTEC project, launched in 2007, aims to enable the countries of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to cover a large part of their energy needs through the use of renewable energies by 2050. One of the instigators of this project is Gerhard Knies, former particle physicist at DESY (Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron). On several occasions he also took part in experiments at CERN, and on 3 February he returned to the Laboratory to present DESERTEC at a special colloquium.


By combining different sources of renewable energy, the DESERTEC project could supply the energy needs of the EU-MENA region countries. The red squares represent the total CSP surfaces needed to provide the present day electricity demands of the world, Europe and the MENA region. Source: DESERTEC Foundation,

The first stage of the project is to install solar power stations in the deserts of the North Africa and Middle East (MENA) region. Deserts are incomparable sources of clean energy and might hold the key to the planet's energy problem. The DESERTEC concept, presented at CERN on 3 February 2011, is quite simple - producing "clean" electricity by exploiting the massive quantities of solar power that beat down upon the deserts. "Our planet's deserts receive more energy in six hours than the whole of humanity consumes in one year! The idea of harnessing this is not new, but we now have the technologies to make it happen," explains Gerhard Knies, a retired German scientist with a long career in particle physics behind him.

The collaboration which founded the project was set up in 2003. Its members come from various fields of activity in many countries and are now united under the banner of the DESERTEC Foundation. "International cooperation is essential," he stresses. "We would also like to forge partnerships with major industries. If you can persuade leading industrialists to invest in a project, the politicians will follow suit."

A concentrating solar thermal power
plant (CSP) reflecting sunbeams onto
a receiver. Source: DESERTEC

The initial aim is to install concentrating solar power stations (CSPs, see box) in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. Power stations of this kind have been used since the late 1980s in California and, more recently, in Nevada and Spain, and have already proved their worth. If a mere 0.3% of our planet's 40 million square kilometres of desert were equipped with them it would be enough to cover all mankind's present power needs! On the question of transportation, Gerhard is confident: "With a loss rate below 3% per 1,000 km, the technological advances being made today in the field of high-voltage DC power lines make it possible to transport electricity at low cost over long distances."

The DESERTEC Foundation is a non-profit organisation in which everyone can take part. Additional information is available here.


How the DESERTEC project evolved

In 2003, Gerhard Knies and Prince El-Hassan bin Talal of Jordan set up TREC, the Transmediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation, an international network of researchers, economists and politicians which elaborated the DESERTEC concept and, several years later, set up a foundation of the same name. Supported by renewable energy research institutes from many countries (Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen), by the German Aerospace Centre and by the Club of Rome, the DESERTEC project has since gone from strength to strength.

In 2008, the DESERTEC Foundation supported the creation of the EU's Mediterranean Solar Plan and in 2009 it launched the industrial initiative Dii GmbH, which brings together partners from the industrial and financial sectors with a view to promoting the DESERTEC concept throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Subsequently, as a complement to Dii, the French government set up Medgrid (formerly Transgreen), a company dedicated to the construction of power lines in the Mediterranean region.

Finally, last year, the DESERTEC university network (DUN) was born, an alliance of 18 universities and research centres in North Africa and the Middle East, whose purpose is to develop the concept in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and, ultimately, throughout the world.


Concentrating solar power stations (CSPs)

Heliothermal power plants operate according to the same principle as solar furnaces, using an array of mirrors. The sun's rays are focussed onto a receiver and used to super-heat water. As in a conventional power station, the resulting steam is used to feed electricity-generating turbines, but without the slightest carbon dioxide emission. With their additional heat-storage capability, CSPs can also produce electricity at night or when the sky is overcast and thus ensure a power supply perfectly matching society's needs.


by Anaïs Schaeffer