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Solar power from Africa could power all of Europe

The French President Nicolas Sarkozy earlier this summer launched, with the support of EU, a new Mediterranean union with the aim to "tackle issues such as regional unrest, immigration to pollution."

The new international body will include 16 non-EU states from around the Mediterranean and all 27 EU member states. The union will focus on dealing with energy, security, counter-terrorism, immigration and trade. The union will include 756 million people from Western Europe to the Jordanian desert.

Some say that the Union was launched mainly because Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to "exchange" nuclear power expertise with North African gas reserves. Nicolas Sarkozy on the other hand says the union is supposed "to ensure the region's people could love each other instead of making war."

But some people are more positive and hope the union is the first steps towards large scale solar plants in northern Africa with focus of generating green and renewable electricity to Europe.

Scientists from the EU are planning for a new supergrid between the different EU member states. This new supergrid will be built using new DC (HVDC) lines which are perfect for transmissions of energy over long distances. The supergrid could allow Denmark and the UK to export wind energy and Iceland to export geothermal energy at times when production exceeds demand to other EU member states.

But the supergrids main purpose would be to transmit renewable solar energy from the Saharan desert to Europe. The scientists want to build a series of huge solar farms in the Saharan desert and connect them to the supergrid.

Arnulf Jaeger-Walden of the European commission's Institute for Energy says "it would require the capture of just 0.3% of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle East deserts to meet all of Europe’s energy needs."

According to the scientists the sunlight in Sahara could "generate up to three times the electricity compared with similar panels in northern Europe" because the sunlight in this area is so intense.

The supergrid project has been met optimistically by both politicians, like Nicholas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, and environment organisations, such as Greenpeace.

"Assuming it’s cost-effective, a largescale renewable energy grid is just the kind of innovation we need if we’re going to beat climate change," said Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK's chief scientist.

Arnulf Jaeger-Walden believes that the solar energy from the Saharan desert would be cheap and "below what the average consumer is paying:"

"The biggest PV system at the moment is installed in Leipzig and the price of the installation is €3.25 per watt. If we could realise that in the Mediterranean, for example in southern Italy, this would correspond to electricity prices in the range of 15 cents per kWh, something below what the average consumer is paying."

The project would take many years to complete and huge investments at a total cost of around €450 billion would be needed. But the scientists expect that by 2050 solar energy from the Saharan desert could produce 100 GW. That is more than all the energy sources in the UK combined could ever generate.

The project would also help Europe to meet its own climate change commitments to generate 20% of all the energy from renewable energy sources, decrease energy consumption by 20% and reducing CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020.

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