During the summer of 1913, in a field just south of Cairo on the eastern bank of the Nile, a US engineer called Frank Shuman stood before a gathering of Egypt’s colonial elite, including the British consul-general Lord Kitchener, and switched on his new invention. Gallons of water soon spilled from a pump, saturating the soil by his feet. Behind him stood row upon row of curved mirrors held aloft on metal cradles, each directed toward the fierce sun overhead. As the sun’s rays hit the mirrors, they were reflected toward a thin glass pipe containing water. The now super-heated water turned to steam, resulting in enough pressure to drive the pumps used to irrigate the surrounding fields where Egypt’s lucrative cotton crop was grown. It was an invention, claimed Shuman, which could help Egypt become far less reliant on the coal being imported at great expense from Britain’s mines.
“The human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism,” wrote Shuman in a letter to Scientific American magazine the following year.
However, the outbreak of the World War I just a few months later abruptly ended his dream and his solar troughs were soon broken up for scrap, with the metal being used for the war effort. Barbarism, it seemed, had prevailed.
Almost a century later, a convoy of air-conditioned coaches last month swept through the affluent suburb of Maadi — where Shuman had demonstrated his fledgling solar panels — continuing south for 90km toward Kuraymat, an area of flat, uninhabited desert near the city of Beni Suef. The high-level international delegation of chief executives, politicians, financiers and scientists has come to visit a brand new “hybrid” power station that uses both natural gas and solar panels to generate electricity. Before the coaches reach the facility’s security gates, its 6,000 parabolic troughs — each 6m tall with a combined surface area of 130,000m2 — are already visible from the perimeter road. Even though the panels account for just one-seventh of the power plant’s 150MW generating capacity, the Egyptian government, which has been pushing to develop the site since 1997, hopes to prove to the delegation that it is the desert sun — not fossil fuels, such as gas, coal and oil — that should be used not only to generate far more of the electricity across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), but, crucially, for neighboring Europe, too.
Gerhard Knies, a German particle physicist, was the first person to estimate how much solar energy was required to meet humanity’s demand for electricity. In 1986, in direct response to the Chernobyl nuclear accident, he scribbled down some figures and arrived at the following remarkable conclusion: in just six hours, the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than humans consume in a year. If even a tiny fraction of this energy could be harnessed — an area of Sahara the size of Wales could, in theory, power the whole of Europe — Knies believed we could move beyond dirty and dangerous fuels forever.
Echoing Schuman’s own frustrations, Knies later asked whether “we are really, as a species, so stupid” not to make better use of this resource. Over the next two decades, he worked — often alone — to drive this idea into public consciousness.
The culmination of his efforts is “DESERTEC,” a largely German-led initiative that aims to provide 15 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050 through a vast network of solar and wind farms stretching right across the MENA region and connecting to continental Europe via special high voltage, direct current transmission cables, which lose only around 3 percent of the electricity they carry per 1,000km. The tentative total cost of building the project has been estimated at 400 billion euros (US$521 billion).