The Sahara Project, created by Rudolf L. Jelínek, is a simple initiative. For those who do not know below is the basic rundown.

The European countries in cooperation with USA, Japan, and other economically strong states will give money and brains to build and manage this project. On the western African coast, close to the equator, where the rocky Sahara desert is, giant fields of solar panels and thermosiphons (water heaters/boilers) will be built.

Nowadays solar panels have an efficiency of about 5%, that is a power of cca 70W/m^2, and water heaters have an efficiency of cca 30%, that is 400W/m^2 from the Sun (not in electricity this time). If we had 1000 square km with 50% water heaters, we would get a power of 235GW - that is 1020TJ (terajoules; 1 terajoul is 1000000000000 joules) of energy every day (12 hours). Without using any otherwise usable land.

The energy would be used to do this:

boil seawater using the water heaters to get (distilled) water and salt, sell the salt (salt prices fall down; From about $0.2/kg to about 0.05/kg, then the other salt-selling companies fall, and the salt prices go up again). Export some of the water across Africa and export some of the electricity across Africa. Using the electricity it will break down water into oxygen and hydrogen, and using CO2 from the air and the hydrogen, produce methane (CH4). Export methane as a fuel for cars, etc., instead of petrol - it will be exported using pipes, as petrol is - petrol prices fall, and the states and companies selling it will suffer a crisis; ISIS goes short of money. Sell some of the oxygen to whoever wants it, and release the rest into the atmosphere - it's an unwanted product.

This project has many advantages:

  • methane is easy to store, especially long-term; Hydrogen isn't, and electricity isn't at all
  • logistics: it will be transported as easily as petrol, maybe easier burning methane... well, burning methane will produce again the CO2
    used to make it - no change overall
  • a lot (thousands, actually) of working spaces created. This could literally employ a whole slum city to maintain the panels/heaters -
    sweeping panels and guarding entrances doesn't need qualified
    workers. This would update the economical and political situation in
    whole Africa
  • new technologies. New technologies would be invented along this project - like it was during NASA's moon-conquering program
  • no more Russia and Saudi Arabia dictating fuel prices
  • no need to push away the locals - there are no locals, instead, people will be encouraged to come

The general agreement is that this is a feasible and highly beneficial project, but in bold, I noticed a problem; The political landscape after such a project could be a problem. What are the major political outcomes of such a initiative? How are powerful nations such as Russia likely and oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia likely to react?

  • $\begingroup$ If you necessary need to name forces, do u? Russia reaction will be none - not care. Arabs will buy technology - they need it for themselves. Overall energy consumption will not changed, specially in places where sun is not so rich. We have no problems where to use energy, we have problems in producing it enough. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Sep 24, 2016 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ Solar cell efficiency covers wide range from 6% to 44%. The quoted figure of 5% is too conservative and seems to apply to undoped silicon photovoltaic cells. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell_efficiency $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Sep 25, 2016 at 5:40
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android For enormous amounts of solar panels, the important thing is W/$. The optimal value will quite likely be for cheap-but-inefficient cells. $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2016 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Hohmannfan That's certainly true, but you also need to factor in construction costs and ongoing maintenance. This might make, no guarantees I know, higher efficiency cells a better choice. Irrespective of what wins out optimal costing is the way to go. Usually cheaper wins out anyway. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Sep 25, 2016 at 9:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yay! I'm famous! +1! $\endgroup$
    – user22613
    Sep 25, 2016 at 13:31

4 Answers 4


Increased stability and security

You asked for a "reality-check", so here goes...

This whole "the powers at be like their status quo and will do ANYTHING to keep it!" trope... please: just forget about it. It is not only overused but reeks so much of naive activism and "All corporations are evil!!!" ideological nonsense.

First: there will be a market for oil and energy far into the forseeable future. Even though birth rates in the world have stabilized (since 11 years back, the number of children in the world is constant) we are living longer and longer which means we can expect to see a population growth until about the year 2060, ending at about 9 to 10 billion people. And not only that but the standard of living is being dramatically improved in very large parts of the world. This begets a stable supply of energy. So there will not be a shortage of a market for oil and energy for a very, very long time.

Second: even if they wanted to, they cannot do anything to stop it. What the hell are they going to do; go to war on the premise "Noooo, you must buy your energy from us, so there!"?! The whole notion that oil producers would violently oppose a transition to a more diversified and electrified usage of energy is quite frankly ludicrous and smacks of the worst kind of conspiracy theories from the Crazy Part Of The Internet.

Third: "everyone" wants to be weaned off of the fossil energy teat, because it is expensive in every way. Not just that you need to buy your energy from someone else, but the external costs in the form of direct damage and damage mitigation from the exhausts, concerning both environment and health, and both in short and long term, are horrendous. Several million people die every year from air pollution caused mainly by fossil fuels. Everyone thinks this is a bad thing in itself, plus that it is also incredibly expensive in that is burdens the health system and it makes the worker force less effective.

And the second reason people want to be off it is exactly the reasons you mention: that while it exists, it provides leverage. Well no-one wants to be held hostage by people like Putin or house of Saud. We know what that is like. An increase of clean and easily accessible energy lessens the risk of conflict. This is because with that, those people can moan and groan and rattle their sabres all they want, they still have no leverage.

It is no coincidence that it is the American state and military that have sponsoredand are sponsoring — some of the greatest breakthroughs in making more clean energy available for all, simply because less scarcity of critical resources — like energy — means increased stability and peace in the world.

So in summary: if projects like Desertec or similar succeed, everyone will be happier, because it increases stability and security between nations.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In addition, the fossil fuel companies will merely have to become investors in the new Sahara economy in order to keep the profits coming. $\endgroup$
    – hexagon
    Sep 25, 2016 at 16:56

Given the fact that besides the power, desalination and chemical plants, you need to build the whole infrastructure from scratch, including transport of goods and people, housing, security, etc.. Alone building a pipeline or a harbour for gas/water and CO2 transport via ship is very expensive. You basically have to build a small city and connect it to the rest of the world from a fairly remote area. So the price per kWh electricity, per m^3 gas and water would likely be not competitive on the global market, eventhough you don't need to pay for fuel (cause you're using the suns energy). I don't think that any private investor would be willing to take such a risk and most governments wouldn't either, because they have their own national agenda on the energy portfolio development. One of the biggest obstacles is that probably no West-European country, neither the USA nor Japan would be willing to become overly energy dependent on a North-African country (or any other country for that matter).
Recent attempts like the mentioned DESERTEC project face huge political problems like this. And while you might say that today there is a certain dependence on Russian and Saudi Arabian oil & gas the individual countries are all working on reducing energy dependence. Last but not least, don't forget that oil & gas exporting countries also rely on the generated currencies for their economy, so this is a mutual relationship. So while the idea is reasonable on a global perspective of meeting energy and water shortages with regard to climate change, the political cooperation would still be extremely difficult. I just don't believe that international cooperation is long-sighted enough in this regard.


It seems that you are positing that the cost of methane, fresh water, and electricity will plummet in the region around the Sahara. Based on this premise alone, fossil fuels would not necessarily disappear. The most expensive fossil fuels (e.g. oil shales) would be shut down, but existing, land-based oil wells are extremely inexpensive to run and would continue to produce oil even at very low market prices.

An inexpensive source of alternative energy would make it much easier to pass anti-fossil fuel legislation in an effort to reduce climate change. I will assume that such a law goes into effect, and that it is enforced successfully across the entire globe.

When wealth comes from fixed resources which are tied to geography, the result is usually an oppressive regime and tremendous wealth/power disparities.

In the feudal era lords became the government because they controlled agricultural land. They did not control the tradesmen in the cities because those people were highly mobile and could take their wealth generating ability with them.

In the modern era most nations where mineral wealth represents a large proportion of the GDP come to be governed by whatever small group of people control that mineral resource (often oil). This is the case in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia, The Central African Republic, etc.

If a fairly small group of people is in control of this Sahara Project, it will rule in an authoritarian manner. Employees and other residents of the area will not have strong rights such as freedom of speech. Owners will appoint the judges or whatever arbiters are used for the legal system. There will be no rule of law governing disputes between owners and everyone else, as the owners will always win every dispute. There might be rule of law governing disputes between non-owners though.

The ownership class will get away with rape, murder, assault, and theft. Their children will be enormously wealthy and immune to law, but will often have no real power until their parents reach retirement age. Held in a state of perpetual adolescence their behavior will be terrible.

Politics among the ownership class will be cutthroat as everyone will jostle for power in the absence of an objective rule of law.

Despite what you say about there not being locals to displace, every piece of land (with the possible exception of Antarctica) has people who consider it theirs. The owners might be miles away, but they exist. It is very likely that the project would proceed as follows:

A large foreign company (backed by massive injections of private capital) approaches the local people of each region of the Sahara and negotiates a deal with them. Normally the locals would receive little compensation in these types of contracts, but foreign lawyers rush in to represent the locals for no cash up front but a huge share of revenue. Thus the locals are able to negotiate very lucrative joint ownership contracts with the company.

In the ensuing years the cleverest locals are able to buy out other locals using a wide variety of clever business tactics. When ownership finally stabilizes, a very few families control most of the land and become the de facto royalty (similar to the establishment of the house of Saud). The rest of the local families form a long tail of mid level and small time nobles - much wealthier and more powerful than workers, but trivial compared to the royalty.

The ownership class will consist of the native land holders, major company shareholders, the company board and officers, and the lawyers who helped the land holders negotiate the deal.

Labor, both skilled (there will need to be engineers to install, maintain, and troubleshoot the facilities) and unskilled, will be non-citizen resident workers. They will have few rights, and will not be allowed to retire in the Sahara. Their children will not have citizenship. Any adult without a job (or a spouse with a job) will be forced to leave. Any child without employed parents will be forced to leave.

The Sahara company will need to run its own military as the facilities will be very vulnerable to sabotage, terrorism, and military attack. Pipelines and power lines can be bombed. Solar panels can be destroyed by nearly anything. Electrical substations in particular are extremely vulnerable to attack.

If the Sahara can do this, then other deserts would likely be almost as good and would replicate this economy. Expect large rival projects in the Atacama, Australia, southern Africa, the Namib, Mexico, and the US southwest. The Gobi will be able to produce huge amounts of power, even if water is not convenient.

The old oil powers will experience upheaval. Smart families will be among the investors in the Sahara company (and its competitors). Stupid families and nations will just become poor and irrelevant. Oil will still be used for plastics and lubricants, so it will not go away, but its price will plummet. Plastics, in particular, will become extremely inexpensive.

The governments of the oil nations will be overturned. These nations will become much more normal, with governments which are controlled by a wide variety of industrial and commercial powers rather than just a tiny minority of oil powers. The behavior of these nations would become less outrageous as they adopt policies more in line with what makes business leaders happy. (i.e. stability, rule of law, free markets)

Coal has never comprised a large fraction of any nation's GDP and its collapse will not result in major changes to any nation state. Coal will have essentially no use in a post-fossil fuel economy. The same goes for natural gas.

Norway and Alaska will face financial crises and be forced to cease their negative taxation programs.

You mention the electricity being sold to Africa, but a large portion would also go north, under the Mediterranean to Europe. The cost of power increases with the length of transmission lines, so there would be a gradient of electricity prices based on distance from deserts.

Wherever electricity is cheapest, massive aluminum smelting operations will be established. If the average price of power across the globe decreases, then so will the cost of aluminum (as well as titanium). Aluminum smelting operations produce enormous quantities of waste heat, which could presumably be used in the already existing water purification plants.

Having massive quantities of cheap, fresh water available in areas with plentiful sunshine and warm temperatures would result in an ideal agricultural environment. The price of food should plummet as Saharan vegetables become common ingredients at the dinner table.

The change in albedo and evaporation rates this would produce in the deserts would cause unpredictable climate changes. Winds would move a little differently, and rainfall would happen in different places. In general though, the net result would be a slightly wetter, not a drier world - especially in the areas around the desert zones.

It is very unlikely that the national borders of the desert regions would be redrawn, so I think you should assume that the nations containing large amounts of desert would become much more powerful. This would include Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Oman, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, but also Namibia, and Chile.

I think you should have Saudi Arabia be one of the smart oil powers which smoothly parlays its oil wealth into Sahara Project investments.

Russia seems likely to wind up a very big loser in this transition. It has little access to solar power, and has hobbled its industrial and commercial economies with crazy oil-state authoritarianism. This could be awkward as they still have one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. Perhaps the US and China restart the Clinton-era policy of purchasing Russian fissile material from old nuclear warheads? (If you're not aware, during the 1990s the USA purchased huge quantities of uranium and plutonium from old Soviet warheads, and then burned this material in US power reactors. In exchange Russia gained much needed cash during their transition from communism.)


Russia and Saudi Arabia, and possibly China, would never allow this to go ahead and since they have significant influence in fuel and in international politics they could probably block this development for a long time. One way to persuade them to agree would be to give them shares in the energy prices to other countries so for every pound worth of electricity produced Russia gets 10 pence or 10 cents per dollar or whatever currency the electricity is sold in. This would encourage them to help although it would not be enough on its own to persuade them to give up the huge political advantage they currently hold. Other significant concessions would be demanded by Russia, concessions the US and NATO would not want to give. If by some miracle the project got the diplomatic go ahead there would probably be long protracted arguments over who pays, who gets the energy for what cost. The countries that helped build it would squabble over who gets what benefits from the build and the host countries needs would likely be forgotten leaving the poorer African countries to pick up any left over debts and running costs whilst they get practically nothing in return.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .