In the unfolding renewable age, the idea of what constitutes a natural resource is shifting (or needs to). Consider this: If Libya were to devote 0.1 percent of its landmass to solar, it would produce five times the power it now produces from oil, giving it the opportunity to run on clean power and sell such power abroad.

This is the startling conclusion of study out of Nottingham Trent University in England. The study was described in a news release by the university, which said the research was carried out by the school’s Innovative and Sustainable Built Environmental technologies group.

libya solar
Libyan desert (image via WIkimedia Commons)

Libya now produces 1.41 million barrels of crude per day. Pre-war, it was producing around 1.5 mb/d.

As noted on the Oil Drum website, under Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi the country was “conservationist” in exploiting its oil reserves, giving it several decades’ more of production at today’s levels or even slightly higher. It’s hard to imagine Libya not drilling and exporting that oil – its economy is hugely dependent on the revenue. But the country could trim its own consumption by exploiting the renewable resources it possesses (which, by the way, includes a lot of wind), while also earning additional revenues from clean power exports.

“If Libya could harness only a tiny fraction of the renewable energy resources it has available in the form of solar and wind power, not only could it meet its own demands for energy, but also a significant part of the world’s demands by exporting electricity,” said Ahmed Mohamed, a Nottingham Trent PhD student, from Libya, who worked on the project.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration [PDF], in 2010, more than 70 percent of Libya’s energy consumption was petroleum and petroleum products (with the rest almost entirely natural gas). Solar power development is virtually nonexistent in the country, but Nottingham Trent said there’s plenty of sun and wide open spaces to take advantage of:

Libya is located on the cancer orbit line and is exposed to the sun’s rays throughout the year with long hours during the day. It has an average daily solar radiation rate of about 7.1 kilowatt hours per square metre per day (kWh/m²/day) on a flat plane on the coast and 8.1kWh/m²/day in the south region. By comparison, the UK’s average solar radiation rate is less than half that amount at about 2.95kWh/m²/day.

“The availability of renewable energy could provide a good complement to meet peak loads and current energy demand, and this in turn can be a good reason for encouraging wind and solar energy projects in Libya,” Mohamed said.

But will it happen? It’s probably a long shot. It would take Libya pulling itself together politically and making a determined effort to exploit its green resources. And it would take massive investment from outside. One way that might happen is through the Desertec initiative, but that dream of creating a clean-power pipeline from North Africa to Europe has had a rough go recently, with major backers Siemens and Bosch Rexroth pulling out, and Spain’s support wavering.