Desertec: Harnessing the Energy of the Desert

Sean Afshar
May 21, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: This is a sketch of a possible implementation of the Desertec concept across the EU-MENA region. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1986 German particle physicist Gehrard Kies calculated that the sun radiates more energy onto the world's deserts in six hours than humans could consume in a year. [1] Under his observations, even a small fraction of the total power could power all of Europe. [1] Years later, this lead to the formation of Desertec: a largely German-led initiative that aims to provide 15% of Europe's electricity by 2050 through a vast network of solar and wind farms stretching right across the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. [1] On October 30, 2009, Desertec teamed up with a consortium of international companies such as Deutsche Bank, Siemens, E.ON, and Munich Re to create the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), a limited liability company designed to translate the Desertec concept into an economically viable business project by adapting and implementing it to provide clean energy for Europe. [1]

The Desertec's global sustainable energy solution is centered around providing the bulk of the worlds energy demands through clean energy generated from the worlds desert regions. When adapted to the EU-MENA (European Union, Middle East, North Africa) region, the Desertec concept proposes that a network of CSP plants, wind farms, and photovoltaic systems spread across North Africa and the Sahara, as in Fig. 1, could provide power for all of the MENA region and supply 15% of energy consumption in Europe by 2050. The rest of Europe's demands can be met through its own resources. [1] Under this proposal, there would also be a trans-national grid of HVDC cables which would deliver the power. [1] The Dii chose to adapt the Desertec concept to the EU-MENA region because of the favorable conditions in the Sahara for solar farms. The Sahara desert receives roughly 3600 hours yearly sunshine and the highest amount of solar radiation received on the planet lies in the Sahara, along the Tropic of Cancer. [2] The continuous and intense amount of sunlight contributes to a lack of year round cloud coverage, which is ideal for operating CSP plants for long stretches of time.

Technical Means

Even though the Deertec concept integrates a variety of renewable energies, concentrated solar power in desert regions serves a special role. [3] Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants use mirrors to convert the thermal energy from the sun into electrical energy. These mirrors reflect large areas of sunlight onto much smaller areas along a central receiver system, which is usually filled with water. When a large amount of sunlight is concentrated onto a smaller area, the water in the receiver heats up and is eventually turned into steam. The steam is then used to power steam turbines or other types of engines that can create electricity.

One of the benefits of CSP plants is that they can store energy, which means that they can provide a continuous source of power during the night and bad weather. [4] As a result, CSP plants can compensate for the fluctuations of less reliable renewables. [4] However, CSP plants require three factors: large, contiguous parcels of land along with access to water (in order to clean mirrors, supply receiver towers, etc), and an immediate means of energy transfer. [4] Since CSP plants tend to be situated in deserts, they often need access to High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission in order to transfer power. HVDC transmission converts all electrical signals into, as the name would suggest, a high voltage direct current, which is an extremely powerful electrical signal that does not change with respect to time. This signal can then be transmitted via high voltage cables to other electrical grids with minimal power loss, which was estimated to be around 10%-15% for transmissions from North Africa to Europe. [4]

Desertec Today

Many questions and obstacles remain in the future of Desertec. First and foremost, many African nations are skeptical about the benefits they would reap from this project. Even though the Desertec concept does indeed plan on helping these countries stabilize their national energy production, it still does not erase all suspicions of these nations. At the end of the day, it is still the land and water of these nations that gets utilized to build these plants, and many Africans are weary Desertec is another form of resource exploitation. [1] In addition, because the Desertec concept relies on a transnational grid spanning the MENA region, it is not feasible without governmental cooperation between nations in the region. Algeria and Morocco are still at odds over border disputes regarding the Sahara and the bureaucratic processes underlying such a transnational undertaking are bound to both waste assets and time. [3] Second, the Dii also faces a serious lack of funding. The project is purported to cost 400 billion (now 474 billion USD), and even though it has backing from many transnational companies, it has failed to secure the funding from the Spanish government to build some of the installations it had planned in Morocco. To make matters worse, many of the big companies backing the Dii such as Siemens and Deutsche Bank have withdrawn their financial support, and in 2013 Desertec terminated its partnership with the consortium of companies, wanting to distance itself from the managerial problems in the Dii. [3]

Regardless, the Desertec continues to move forward with the Desertec concept. Desertec managed to secure funding from the African Development Bank to build a 580 MW solar farm in Ouarzazate, Morocco, consisting of a CSP plant and a sector of photovoltaics. Construction of the complex started in 2013 and the complex is expected to be fully functional by early 2018. [5] Desertec has also made strides in creating a transnational electrical grid between Europe and the MENA region. In 2011, Desertec signed a Memorandum of Understanding with fellow clean energy initiative Medgrid which outlined a plan to study, design, and build an interconnected electrical grid between Tunisia and Italy. [6] Although many of Desertec's plans are still in the planning process, it is making progress through small, practical steps which show the viability of its solution.

© Sean Afshar. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] L. Hickman, "Could the Desert Sun Power the World?, The Guardian, 11 Dec 11.

[2] T. R. Sinclair and A. Weiss, Principles of Ecology in Plant Production (CABI, 2010).

[3] T. Pfeiffer, "Europe's Saharan Power Plan: Miracle or Mirage?," Reuters, 23 Aug 09.

[4] S. Bohn et al., "A Pan-European-North African HVDC Grid for Bulk Energy Transmission A Model-Based Analysis," IEEE 6863272, 14 Apr 14.

[5] L. Hickman and H. Gersmann, "Morocco to Host First Solar Farm in €400bn Renewables Network," The Guardian, 2 Nov 11.

[6] B. Lewis and R. Merrifield, "Arab Spring a Short-Term Problem for Solar-Medgrid," Reuters, 24 Nov 11.