The roots of solar power

In 1906 Frank Shuman, an American engineer, inventor, and solar-energy pioneer began developing the idea that he and others in his field believed would save the world when the time that the dwindling supply of fossil fuels would come to an end.

Schuman began working on solar motors, and by 1910, he was ready to scale the design up and put it to the test in a commercial-scale power plant.

Shuman’s new, upsized plant…

–          Covered half an acre of land;

–          Was 10x the size of his original installation;

–          Consisted of 572 individual hotbox collectors arranged in 26 arrays;

–          Was more than 10,000sq ft (including the surface area-enhancing mirrors);

–          Produced around 600 pounds of steam per hour, generating 25 horsepower.

Shuman wrote in a letter that was published in Scientific American in 1914, “One thing I feel sure of, and that is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism.”

Then 70 years on in 1986, German particle physicist, Gerhard Knies, was the first person to calculate roughly how much solar energy was needed to meet global demand for electricity, after the Chernobyl nuclear accident that same year.

Knies worked out that in a mere six hours, the world’s deserts received more energy from the sun than we consume in a year, and believed harness even a fraction of this energy using solar panels, we could forever free ourselves of the grip of the ever-growing energy crisis.

Now, thanks to Gerhard Knies, a mostly German-led initiative, Desertec  (the cost of which is estimated at €400bn), aims to provide 15% of Europe’s electricity by 2050, which will be fed to continental Europe via specially devised, high-voltage cables by using desert sun in the Mena region.

While up until this age the political, economic and ethical pitfalls appeared to be too profuse, the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) was set up in 2009 and secured investment from some of the biggest corporate heavyweights in Germany, including Deutsche Bank, E.ON, Munich Re and Siemens all becoming shareholders.

Now, almost 100 years on, the Egyptian government has built on the dreams of their eco-conscious forefathers and has been pushing to develop the desert land of Kurayamat to become a brand new hybrid power station.

Containing no less than 6,000 troughs (with a combined surface area of 130,000sq m), these panels account for one seventh of the power plant’s 150MW energy generation, the Egyptian government hopes to prove that this initiative is capable of feasibly generating enough electricity to be fed to the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.

What could this mean for global economy over the next century? Perhaps a shift in power, as it is clear which regions will win out given the nature of Desertec and the kind of land and conditions it requires in order to exist…



  1. Bekah Kuczenski says:

    Wow that’s crazy, I had no idea that solar power was being thought of in 1906! I wish our society utilized solar power more!

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