Im sure all of us have heard the urban myth that simply by harnessing a small part of the Sahara desert Africa has the potential to supply the whole world’s electricity demand.. it is in fact true. The concept of using deserts as a kind of global solar power plant was first proposed by Dr Gerhard Knies, a particle physicist who began investigating potential clean energy supplies following the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. He arrived at the following remarkable statistic: in just six hours, the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes in a year. Deserts are by their nature remote, forbidding places but the practicalities of installing photovoltaic (PV) panels and using thousands of kilometres of high voltage DC cable to transmit the electricity are, thanks to modern technological advancements, all theoretically feasible. Indeed, it remains a serious proposition, with the well funded Desertec Foundation committed to harnessing sustainable power from sites where renewable sources of energy are more abundant (like deserts) and transferring it through high voltage DC transmission to consumption centres. But doesnt it all sound like the kind of thing a James Bond villain might get up to?
Whilst global energy use has probably doubled since Dr Knies did his initial calculations, his point remains that deserts do still offer a massive untapped resource of carbon neutral electricity – but then again, so does the African continent at large. Africa has one of the highest solar irradiation levels in the world but there is a slight hitch – two thirds of the continent are not grid connected. Under this scenario, home-grown power from the likes of the Sahara, Kalahari and Namib deserts as envisioned by the Desertec Foundation would be unavailable to the majority of the continent producing it, which hardly seems fair.
Fortunately, there is a way for non grid-connected communities to benefit from the immense solar resources of the African continent and access sustainable energy to make small yet significant changes in livelihoods. Solar Kerosene Replacement Lamps, domestic PV panels, school and community PV panels, PV vaccine refrigerators, village level solar ‘kiosks’ – all of which offer decentralised, largely maintenance free sources of energy which is something co2balance has long been committed to exploring in its projects.
Its a fact that in Africa, PV panels will either replace expensive, polluting fossil fuels in peoples homes (kerosene), noisy and expensive diesel generators (communities) or in most cases supply a clean source of energy where previously there was none. We have already seen what the mobile phone has done in Africa and the innovation that has flourished in the wake of its meteoric rise (phone based finanicial services like MPESA offering banking to the traditionally ‘unbankable’, flows of information through social media etc). The continent is now on track to reach 1 Billion mobile phone subscriptions by 2015; lets hope universal access to solar electricity on this sunniest of continents mirrors this stellar rise – who knows what innovations may follow?