Country hopes to transform Sahara desert into energy for itself and Europe.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 beginning to tap its sunshine on an industrial scale for itself and Europe.
Work on its first plant began late last month at Hassi R'mel, 260 miles 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 nearly 2 million square feet -- 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 in 2002 by the Algerian government to develop renewable energy.
The project faces daunting financial and technological obstacles. Solar power's supporters say it will take 10 years for it to become economically competitive, and while undersea cables to Sicily and Spain are planned for construction in 2010-2012, it isn't known who will finance them.
But as the world grows increasingly anxious about climate change and dwindling fossil fuels, ideas that once sounded like science fiction are becoming more plausible.
In Algeria's case, exporting solar power through undersea cables would add flesh and bone to the idea floated by Nicolas Sarkozy, France's new president, of a "Mediterranean Union" that would bind Europe and North Africa closer together.
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 $54 billion last year.
Algeria seems an obvious source of solar power.
Africa's second largest country is more than four-fifths desert, with enough sunshine to meet Western Europe's needs 60 times over, according to estimates cited by Algeria's energy ministry.
"The solar potential of Algeria is huge, enormous, because solar radiation is high and there is plenty of land for solar plants," said Eduardo Zarza Moya, who works on solar power for Spain's public energy research center, CIEMAT. Land is cheap, he said, and there is also manpower.
Algeria already uses photovoltaic solar panels to electrify 18 scattered, off-grid villages in the Sahara, and 16 more are due to come on line by 2009. Two such projects are run by British-based company BP.
The Hassi R'Mel site represents large-scale power generation. It is the first of four planned hybrid plants which will use Algeria's abundant natural gas to supplement sunshine and ensure power at night or in cloudy weather. The Hassi R'Mel plant, which will produce power for domestic consumption, will also house a research center to study how to reduce solar power costs.
The hybrid plants will use a thermal technology called concentrating solar power, or CSP, in which sunlight heats fluids to drive an electricity-generating turbine.
The system is widely regarded as being cheaper with better storage potential for large-scale energy production than photovoltaic technology, which converts sunlight directly into electricity. Spanish engineering firm Abener has a 66 percent share in the $425 million Hassi R'Mel project, having won an international tender to build the plant with Algeria's NEAL.
Algeria hopes to build three other hybrids generating 400 megawatts each by 2015, at which time Algeria aims to be producing 6 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.
Experts warn that financing the cables may wipe out the profits from selling the power in Europe. They also say the domestic market will find it hard to compete with cheap Algerian oil and gas.
But they're positive about the long-term outlook.
Franz Trieb, an analyst at the German Space Agency in Stuttgart who helped produce a recent study on CSP in Mediterranean and Middle East countries, said that by 2020 the cost of collecting solar power would be equivalent to paying $15 for a barrel of oil.
"In 2020 we will have considerable capacity of CSP installed worldwide and this will lead to cost reductions," he said. Delivery systems "would add a little bit to the cost but not too much. It could be competitive with electricity prices in Europe."
Solar-derived electricity currently costs 25 percent more than using gas and will need to be subsidized for 10 years until the cost of solar power comes down, said Hasni.
"The current race is to see who will control renewable energy technologies, and we are in the race," Algerian Energy Minister Chakib Khelil told reporters.
By AIDAN LEWIS Associated Press August 19, 2007.