Hundreds of thousands of mirrors will be placed in the Sahara over the next few years

Their job would be to put the abundant amount of sunlight present in this desert at the service of clean electricity. The Dutchman Paul van Son, chairman of the “DESERTEC project”, is preparing for a major operation.

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The size of the DESERTEC project is unprecedented: The project will last 4 decades, two-and-a-half thousand square miles of desert covered with solar mirrors, which would provide countries all around the Sahara with affordable and clean electricity by the year 2050.

Even more ambitious: by then, “Sahara Power” should be able to cover 15% of European consumption. It also means strengthening the power network in Northern Africa, and the construction of ultra strong connections below the Mediterranean Sea through to Europe.

Such a massive project requires unprecedented investment. CEO Paul van Son warns of the large amounts:

“In a scenario by the German Aviation Institute it would be some 400 billion euros in costs over 40 years. But that is actually quite comparable to the cost you would have to pay if you produce the power stream in a different way, for example using conventional means … “

Household name
The Dutchman Van Son is completely unknown to the public but in the world of clean energy he is a “household name”. Trained at the Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands, the electrical engineer has worked for a range of companies and institutions worldwide dealing in energy production and distribution. During the last 6 years he was “managing director” of the German branch of the electricity giant Essent. Since a few weeks Paul van Son is the CEO of DESERTEC project, based in Munich.

In the next three years, Van Son is expected to present a well-documented investment plan for DESERTEC. It is intended that investors should be able to calculate their returns. Because it is clear that the dozens of major European industries including Siemens, Deutsche Bank and DWE energy giant, participating in the project, are not there just for the love of the environment.

“I think these companies understand that the future lies in renewable energy, and that we in Europe, and perhaps the rest of the world, are sitting today in the middle of the transition to clean energy. And of course, see also the future of their own businesses in it.”

Simple technique
The technology of DESERTEC is tested, so no experiments. There are wind turbines and solar panels, but the bulk of the production comes from ‘solar thermal energy’. It works like this: hundreds of thousands of mirrors concentrate sunlight on a point, a large boiler. The steam that is created there drives a turbine to make electricity. It is a simple concept and easy to maintain.

The difficulty lies in getting all the Saharan countries on board. Libya and Algeria earn much money from their oil production. They may not sit and wait for what they perceive as competition from the angle of clean energy. On the other hand, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt see the project as a good opportunity, also for the creation of labour. Van Son is flying countless kilometres to try to strike a deal:

“One of the main challenges for the local population, and also the local politics, is to show what is possible. We must also highlight the benefits that it provides for their countries. That is of course a massive undertaking because it covers a large area, and those people have little experience with this massive form of electricity. “

Whether the project would succeed, the new CEO knows for sure: “It is the first time that businesses of this scale have shown such commitment to a sustainable energy project. Therefore it has to succeed, these companies see profits.”

According to Van Son, within ten years, the first European socket will be powered by Sahara Power.

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