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Can The Sahara Desert Power Europe?

What with all that hot sun beating down on the Sahara Desert day after day, it's no surprise that energy planners have suggested lining the sands of North Africa with mirrors and building vast concentrated solar plants to deliver lots and lots of carbon-free power to Europe. It's not just an idle fantasy, either: One $573 billion proposal, known as Desertec, has attracted a dozen finance and industrial companies, and its backers claim that the solar arrays could one day satisfy up to 15 percent of Europe's electricity needs.

But as a Reuters dispatch today explores, there are all sorts of risks and hassles involved, too. For starters, the project would require at least 20 high-voltage, low-loss cables strung beneath the Mediterranean, each costing at least $1 billion. Then consider that Morocco and Algeria, two prime sites for the CSP plants, would have to coordinate their efforts for the project to work—a tough nut to crack given that the border between the two nations is currently shut, due to a dispute over Western Sahara. There's also the lesser risk of "Al Qaeda-aligned rebels" in Algeria. Still, if all those hassles could be overcome, the developmental benefits for Africa would be enormous:

Southern countries that import most of their energy like Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan would also benefit from Desertec. Morocco buys in 96 percent of its energy and subsidizes fuel to make it more affordable for the poor, a massive drain on state resources that could be used to fight poverty and bring services to isolated rural areas.

The Moroccan government says Desertec could solve Morocco's energy dependency and leave plenty of power for Europe. "Morocco doesn't have even 1 percent of Europe's energy consumption, so let's be realistic," said Said Mouline, the head of Morocco's renewable energy agency. "We would be generating enough power for us, and for export, for the next 100 years."

That said, not everyone's convinced. The head of the European Association for Renewable Energy, Hermann Scheer, argues that the project is a "mirage," and that the future of solar power lies in smaller, distributed photovoltaic projects—a solar panel on everyone's roof, say—rather than massive utility-scale plants located in one centralized spot.

Implicitly, there's a similar debate rumbling beneath the surface here in the United States: Democrats like Harry Reid and Al Gore have talked up the need for a "electric superhighway," large new high-voltage transmission lines that would deliver power from yawning solar plants in Arizona or giant wind farms out in North Dakota straight to cities and population centers. But many renewable advocates, meanwhile, have played up the potential for a more distributed approach, in which you don't have to deal with clumsy new transmission lines, and don't run up against the hassles of, say, trying to site big new solar plants in the desert, which, as utilities are discovering in the Southwest, isn't always easy.