The UK government is committed to ambitious renewable energy targets as part of an international agreement to reduce global warming. The current target is for 15% of the UK’s energy should be from renewable sources by 2020. We’ve a long way to go to hit these targets, so it’s no surprise that every avenue for increasing the ways in which we can generate power from renewable sources is being explored. Solar power offers a readily available source of clean, efficient energy for the UK, but in a country which is notoriously rainy and dull, what options are there for increasing solar power? One approach which is being investigated is whether large numbers of solar panels can be installed in sunnier regions to generate the power, store it, and then ship it back to the UK where it can be used.
Founded in 2009 by a group of German scientists, the Desertec Foundation is a not for profit organisation which aims to generate solar energy in the parts of the world where the sun shines the strongest such as the Sahara Desert, and then routing it through to parts of the world where demand for energy is highest, such as northern Europe. The plan isn’t as far-fetched as it may first appear, as similar projects, albeit on a smaller scale, already exist in the South of Spain and in the United States. Using high voltage direct current lines, power generated in the deserts of Northern Africa can be transported up to 3,000km to the end users, and given that 90% of the world’s population lives within that distance of a desert, the potential benefits are clear. Morocco is already generating a solar plant capable of generating 500 megawatts of power on the edge of the Sahara, covering an area the size equivalent to that of its capital city. Eventually, Morocco aims to export any extra power to mainland Europe via existing links to Spain, and other African nations, such as Ghana, are also starting work on their own large scale solar farms.
Will Large-Scale International Export of Solar Power Actually Happen?
There are already many examples of international sharing of electricity, with grid connections between the UK and continental Europe and between several other countries already in existence. Plans are already underway to link Morocco and Spain with power lines and many northern African countries such as Algeria and Tunisia are already generating solar power. It all sounds like a great idea, and a way of meeting European renewable energy targets and accessing a cheap and sustainable form of energy. European nations have also recognised that in order to meet their renewable energy targets that can’t just concentrate on one type of energy such as wind power; a combination of different generating techniques needs to be used to guarantee a stable and consistent supply.
However, let’s not forget that North Africa in recent years has not been the most stable of world regions. Libya has been in turmoil since the Arab Spring of 2011, extremists have carried out terrorist attacks in Chad and Tunisia, and Egypt is also proving to be similarly unstable. Are European governments and major energy companies really going to pour major investments into this area of the world when the future is so uncertain? Probably not. It remains to be seen how things develop over the coming years, but unless the situation in North Africa stabilises, Europe may miss out on this source of energy but other parts of the world such as the United States may be able to start to develop the technology.
Reaping the Solar Dividend in Other Ways
The British solar industry has boomed in the last decade, with attractive government incentives encouraging homeowners and businesses across the country to install solar panels on their roofs and benefit from cheap electricity. In many cases, any excess generated was sold back to the grid at generous prices, making solar much more affordable. The government’s policy of austerity has reduced these incentives gradually over the years and this has led to fewer people installing solar, and the demise of several solar power companies. So could there be an opportunity here for British manufacturers of solar panels and related equipment to get involved in large scale import projects and safeguard jobs that way? Possibly, but in international terms, the UK barely scrapes into the top 10 of countries which have embraced solar technology, behind much smaller nations such as Belgium. Germany, as the nation in the world which is leading the way in solar power stands to benefit the most from any schemes to import power from other parts of the world.
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