The idea eventually became a set of plans known as Desertec, which would see solar and wind farms in northern Africa providing affordable and renewable energy to European nations via high voltage direct current transmission cables. The project continued to sit in limbo for decades, until recently, when applications were filed to begin construction of a 4.5 GW plant in Tunisia, which could produce enough energy to power two million homes throughout Europe.
While this is an excellent start on the road toward a fully renewable European Union, the project will benefit only a small fraction of homeowners in its infancy. If the Desertec concept were to be expanded, how much power would it take to bring renewable energy to all of Europe? How many solar panels would you need? How much would a project of that magnitude cost? How much space would it take up? And could the concept be expanded beyond Europe?
A recent study showed that in 2015, the total net electricity consumption for all 28 nations in the European Union was 3.07 million gigawatt hours, or GWh for short, this corresponds to 3.07 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh). Taking into account African solar radiation levels of 2,400 kWh/m2, Europe would require a solar system of 1,639,957,264.96 kw, or 1,639.96 GW. For the purposes of this discussion, we will work with the 2015 numbers, as year by year the total energy level produced by Europe rises and falls, sometimes drastically.
Our African based solar farm would have to produce a substantial amount of power to keep the European Union operating as it has been with no interruption to daily life. However, you also need to consider the distance that this power has to travel, moving from northern Africa into nations all over Europe. Typically, power traveling hundreds of miles sees grid loss of 5-7%. Adding an additional 7% onto our initial power load to account for this loss adds another 214.9 billion kWh, bringing the total up to 3,284,900,000,000 kWh. So once more accounting for solar radiation, our solar system has to be 1,754,754,273.50 kW, or 1,754.75 GW.
When using standard PV 250-Watt solar panels to create a 1,754,754,273,500-Watt system, you divide 1,754,754,273,500 by 250. By doing this, you’ll discover that it would take 7,019,017,094 panels to meet Europe’s current power needs.
The cost of a fully renewable Europe is steep, but the cost of solar panels is falling exponentially. Recently, India unveiled the most affordable panel prices in history, costing only $0.65 per Watt. This has been achieved thanks to India’s low cost labor, undercutting even China, whose solar soft costs are $0.11 higher per Watt than India’s.
When you take this pricing into consideration, with the 250-Watt panels discussed earlier, hardware for this site will cost $162.50 per panel. For this massive system of over 6.5 billion panels, the cost of powering Europe with solar comes in at $1,140,590,277,775.
Keep in mind that this cost only represents the price of the solar panels. Soft costs such as labor will drive that price up.
It has been estimated that to generate 1 GWh of solar energy, you need 2.8 acres of open space for panel installation. If we need to generate 3.07 million GWh, then we’re going to need upwards of 8,596,000 acres of space. That’s 13,431.25 square miles to fully power Europe!
Of course, this is only the space needed for the panels themselves. The actual plot of land would have to be larger to account for service roads, installation facilities, and transmission lines. Considering the Sahara Desert is 3.552 million square miles of mostly empty sand, there’s a lot of land to play with.
Desertec is just another way that European countries are seeking to incorporate renewable energy into their lives. Several nations, including the United Kingdom and France have vowed to convert entirely to electric cars, banning the sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2040. This, coupled with an already impressive resume of solar powered nations, including Germany, whose goal is to have energy production be 80% renewable by 2050, create a truly sustainable continent that will cut costs and preserve environmental initiatives into the future.
But Desertec is not solely a European initiative. If efforts in Europe prove fruitful, we could see this project expand to provide renewable energy to the entire world.
Kyle Pennell works for PowerScout, a home solar marketplace that lets you compare multiple quotes for home solar