A Green Energy Dream Grows in the Sahara

Japanese academics plan an energy utopia in the Sahara, complete with superconductors and home-brewed silicon photovoltaics

4 min read
A Green Energy Dream Grows in the Sahara

4 October 2011—"People say it’s a Don Quixote project," says Hideomi Koinuma. He grins. He chuckles. "That means they think it’s a crazy project." He completely cracks up. Being compared to an eccentric knight who embarks on grand but impossible quests apparently doesn’t bother him in the slightest.

Koinuma, a professor at the University of Tokyo, is the dreamer behind the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, a proposal that he says could supply a major portion of the world’s energy. The idea: Perfect a process that turns the Sahara’s sand into high-purity silicon suitable for making solar panels, build factories in Algeria to churn out those photovoltaic panels, and establish solar power stations throughout empty desert land. Then send the abundant clean electricity produced across vast distances—around Africa, Europe, and the Middle East—via high-temperature superconducting transmission lines.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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