Magazine article The Middle East

The Sahara Goes Green: Whilst North Africa Retains Some Sizeable Oil and Gas Reserves, the Drive to Introduce Alternative Energy in the Sahara Is Gaining Support from across the Desert to Europe

Magazine article The Middle East

The Sahara Goes Green: Whilst North Africa Retains Some Sizeable Oil and Gas Reserves, the Drive to Introduce Alternative Energy in the Sahara Is Gaining Support from across the Desert to Europe

Article excerpt

THE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY HAS BEEN hard at work in some of the remotest corners of the Sahara for decades, exploiting the region's abundant supplies of petroleum and natural gas. Petroleum engineers and local residents aside, the Sahara is otherwise viewed as nothing more than a forbidding and infertile region with little economic value, either industrial or agricultural.

Such a one-dimensional image is about to change as the desert is set to become host to cutting-edge, green-energy technology. While solar energy is well known in the Sahara, in its natural state of sunlight, what is changing is the development of plans to harvest this unlimited and otherwise ignored source of energy. If successful, the proposed scheme would see the sun's rays alone supplying all of the energy needs for both North Africa and Europe.

It might seem counterintuitive that while certain North Africa countries continue to feature prominently among the world's major oil- and gas-producing nations, the region should be thinking about developing its alternative energy sector. While Tunisia and Morocco may be net importers of their hydrocarbon needs, Algeria and Libya, by contrast, are both members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and so consistently feature in the league tables of top exporters of oil and/or gas. Why then, should they be looking to alternative energy?

Oil and gas are finite resources. The fact that current hydrocarbon reserves are immense does not matter, nor does the future possibility of discovering new mega-fields, nor the inevitable technological advances that will make the extraction of existing fields more economically viable; one day the wells will run dry. With this in mind, planning ahead is little more than common sense, but common sense is not the only consideration at work.

Apart from the knowledge that hydrocarbon supplies will eventually become depleted, interest in developing alternative sources of energy is also being driven under the terms of the Kyoto Protocols, which the vast majority of countries have signed up to, including the European Union. Under the terms of Kyoto, European Union member nations have agreed to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases to pre-1990 levels, an EU-wide average reduction of approximately 8%.

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Tidal energy is obviously not an option in the heart of the essentially waterless desert, but plans have been developed for harnessing wind energy in the region. Both Morocco's Atlantic coast and the Red Sea exhibit ideal conditions for locating wind farms. Both off-Saharan bodies of water enjoy consistent winds, which are essential for viable wind-power generation.

As exciting as wind energy may be, the most dramatic and largest scheme for generating sustainable energy in the desert at this time involves solar power. If successful, one proposed scheme would see harnessed sunlight responsible for supplying all the energy needs for both North Africa and Europe.

Ambitious plans

Think of the Sahara and it is hard to imagine anything but a barren wasteland. While this is an inaccurate description, there is no doubt that it is one of the least densely populated places on earth, which also receives some of the highest amounts of sunlight anywhere on earth.

Scientists recently tasked with determining how much solar energy the world's deserts receive came up with a startling figure. According to their calculations, the world's deserts receive the same amount of energy in six hours as the entire world consumes in a year. Such staggering figures are hard to ignore, especially in the face of unstable oil prices, partly driven by political instability in the Middle East, both real and imagined, the inevitable decline in oil supplies and the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses.

The drive to develop solar power in the Sahara is being led by Desertec, a consortium made up of twelve of Europe's leading corporations that was launched in July 2009. …

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