In the wake of the first Gulf War, the U.S. Army assessed Saudi Arabia's solar energy resource potential in a classified effort to determine how oil fires had affected the region.
The results were clear and surprising. In addition to being a vast petroleum repository, the desert nation was also the heart of the most potentially productive region on the planet for harvesting power from the sun. In other words, Saudi Arabia was the Saudi Arabia of solar energy.
Sitting in the center of the so-called Sun Belt, the country is part of a vast, rainless region reaching from the western edge of North Africa to the eastern edge of Central Asia that boasts the best solar energy resources on Earth. With the cost of oil skyrocketing, this belt is attracting the attention of a growing number of European leaders, who are embracing an ambitious proposal to harvest this solar energy for their nations.
The irony is inescapable and the story a familiar one, as the developed world again turns to the less developed countries in hopes of powering their economies. More important, it highlights an unappreciated implication of a solar-powered economy: The end of the oil age will not necessarily bring an end to the ugly geopolitics, resource wars and national rivalries that oil created.
The end of the oil age will not necessarily bring an end to the ugly geopolitics, resource wars and national rivalries that oil created.
The Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation, or TREC, is the brainchild of a consortium led by the controversial Club of Rome and includes influential members like the German Aerospace Bureau and several universities in Europe and the Middle East.
TREC is spearheading a political initiative to build a so-called transmission supergrid by concentrating solar thermal power plants, wind turbines and long distance power lines to supply energy to Europe. The proposed power plants would simultaneously provide energy to seawater desalination plants in the Middle East and North Africa.
While the wild-eyed scheme might seem better suited for conspiracy theories than reality, it has attracted a growing number of impressive and powerful backers. In 2007, Prince El Hassan of Jordan, who has called for implementing the plan with an Apollo-like program, presented the plan during a European Union parliamentary session. Nicolas Sarkozy, the recently elected President of France, and U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown have both publicly endorsed the supergrid project in recent weeks.
In July, Sarkozy hosted the inaugural meeting of the "Union for the Mediterranean" in Paris. The Union, which seeks to promote relations between North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, considers TREC's solar energy proposal one of its top priorities. Meanwhile, the escalating conflict in Georgia, which has exposed the extent of Europe's energy insecurity, has undoubtedly increased the TREC plan's appeal.
Capitalizing on the Sun Belt
While TREC's plan is nowhere near becoming a reality, it seems inevitable that, in one form or another, someone will try to capitalize on the vast solar energy resources available in the sun-soaked countries of the Sun Belt.
While it is technically possible to convert sunlight into electricity anywhere, it costs far less to do so in areas that receive the most powerful forms of sunlight — sunlight that loses the least amount of radiant energy while moving from space to earth. The Sun Belt receives the lion's share of this energy-rich sunlight.
While speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona, Spain, in July, Arnulf Jaeger-Walden, one of Europe's leading energy authorities, said that less than 0.4 per cent of the solar energy that falls on the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East would satisfy all of Europe's energy needs.
The opportunity isn't lost on Sun Belt countries. In March, Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Ali al-Nuaimi, said the country hopes to become as expert with solar energy as it is with oil. While Saudi Arabia has long toyed with solar power for small projects, such as a 1980s "Solar Village" program to develop the use of the technology in remote regions, its aspirations appear to be growing.
"For a country like Saudi Arabia ... one of the most important sources of energy to look at and to develop is solar energy," al-Nuaimi told the French oil newsletter Petrostrategies. "One of the research efforts that we are going to undertake is to see how we make Saudi Arabia a center for solar energy research, and hopefully over the next 30 to 50 years we will be a major megawatt exporter."
In Hassi R'mel, Algeria, construction has begun on a new power plant using a combination of solar and natural gas. The hope is to generate 150 megawatts of electricity by 2010, with 25 megawatts from a solar array stretching nearly 2 million square feet. The long-term goal is to export more than 6,000 megawatts of solar-generated power to Europe by 2020.
"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," Tewfik Hasni, managing director of New Energy Algeria, or NEAL, a company created by the Algerian government in 2002 to develop renewable energy, told the Associated Press last year.
This is why, barring a major technological breakthrough, the economics of solar energy may someday look much like the economics of fossil fuels. Energy security ultimately means more than access to energy; it means access to cheap energy. And like it or not, the Sun Belt has the cheapest solar energy in the world in vast quantities.
"In the same way we are an oil exporter," said Saudi Arabia's Ali al-Nuaimi, "we can also be an exporter of power."