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The major obstacle to using renewable energy has always been the inability to produce a constant supply of electricity to consumers. However, scientists now believe that they have found a way to solve the supply and demand problem.
Arnulf Jaeger-Waldau of the European Commission's Institute for Energy, speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona (ESOF), believes that the creation of solar farms in the Sahara desert could produce enough energy to meet all of Europe's energy needs. Power could be generated either through photovoltaic cells or by using the sun's heat to boil water and power turbines.
Scientists at the ESOF 2008 are also proposing a 'supergrid' that could transmit electricity along high voltage direct current cables and potentially allow countries to export their wind energy during periods of surplus, as well as import energy from other sources. The grid proposal, with its ability to transmit power from different sources, eliminates the criticism of the instability of renewable energy. If there is no wind or sun in Europe, there certainly will be in the Sahara and the grid could potentially be able to transmit that energy to where it is needed.
The argument for solar farms in the Sahara is solid in that photovoltaic panels there could potentially generate three times more energy than panels in northern Europe. It is estimated that capturing 0.3% of the sunlight falling on the desert would meet all of Europe's needs.
The major drawback to the proposal is the cost and the time. An investment of around €450bn would be needed and scientists estimate that it would take until 2050 before the project could produce 100 GW which is more electricity than all sources of power in the UK combined.
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The visionary proposal comes as the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission released its strategic energy technology plan which highlighted photovoltaic cells as one of the eight technologies that need to be developed in the future. The plan also includes fuel cells, hydrogen, clean coal, second generation biofuels, nuclear fusion, wind and smart grids.
"If we don't put together resources and findings across Europe and we let go the several sectors of energy, we will never reach these targets," said Giovanni de Santi, director of the JRC. The targets include Europe's commitment to reduce energy consumption by 20% by 2020, reduce CO2 emissions by 20% and increasing renewable energy by 20%.
The Euroscience Open Forum 2008 was held from July 18-22 and provided an open platform for scientists, researchers, policy makers, business people and journalists to debate and communicate on evolving research trends. It was the third forum with previous conferences held in Stockholm in 2004 and Munich in 2006.