It’s a vision that has long enticed energy planners: solar panels stretching out over vast swaths of the Sahara desert, soaking up sun to generate clean, green power.
Now Algeria, aware that its oil and gas riches will one day run dry, is gearing up to tap its sunshine on an industrial scale for itself and even Europe.
Work on its first plant began late last month at Hassi R’mel, 420 kilometers south of Algiers, the capital. The plant will be a hybrid, using both sun and natural gas to generate 150 megawatts. Of that, 25 megawatts will come from giant parabolic mirrors stretching over 180,000 square meters— roughly 45 football fields.
Experts say it’s the first project of its kind to combine gas and steam turbines with solar thermal input in a hybrid plant. The plant should be ready in 2010, and the longer-term goal is to export 6,000 megawatts of solar-generated power to Europe by 2020, about a tenth of current electricity consumption in Germany.
“Our potential in thermal solar power is four times the world’s energy consumption so you can have all the ambitions you want with that,” said Tewfik Hasni, managing director of New Energy Algeria, or NEAL, a company created by the Algerian government in 2002 to develop renewable energy.
The Algerian program is part of a broader reassessment of green technologies by countries that owe their wealth to oil and gas. Algeria, population 33 million, remains heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, which earned it about US$54 billion (€39 billion) last year.
“Until now all the oil-producing countries under the lead of Saudi Arabia did everything to torpedo renewable energies,” said Wolfgang Palz, chairman of the independent World Council for Renewable Energy, speaking on the sidelines of an international conference on renewable energy in Algiers in June.
“This is really a big change now because with all this talking about the limitations of conventional resources,” oil-producing countries “feel obliged to do something,” he said.