A novel combination of technologies that has the potential to turn large areas of desert green, producing commercial quantities of food and energy crops, fresh water, and electricity, looks set to have its first large-scale demonstration in Jordan. The governments of Jordan and Norway today inked an agreement to work with the Sahara Forest Project  (SFP), an environmental technology group based in Norway, to build a 20-hectare demonstration center near Aqaba on the Red Sea, which would begin operation in 2015.
"It's a holistic approach that could be of major interest to a large number of countries," says Petter Ølberg, Norway's ambassador to Jordan.
The key to the project is bringing seawater to the desert and evaporating it. The facility is based around a structure called a seawater greenhouse, which is akin to a giant solar still —evaporating seawater and condensing fresh water—but it also maintains a cool moist interior that is ideal for growing crops. The first commercial example of a seawater greenhouse, a 2000-square-meter unit in Port Augusta, Australia , harvested its first crop of tomatoes last month.
SFP combines this technology with a concentrated solar power  plant.
Unlike photovoltaic systems, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, concentrated solar power uses mirrors to focus light onto a heat collector, which then produces steam to drive a turbine generator. In an SFP facility, the solar plant can power the greenhouse and the greenhouse supply water to the power plant, making both more efficient.
Under today's agreement, Jordan will provide the 20-hectare site and a corridor to pipe salt water from the Red Sea. Norway will provide $600,000 for three feasibility studies. Construction of the demonstration center will require private money.
The planned demonstration center devotes 4 hectares to greenhouses and 16 hectares to open-air crops, solar reflectors, and support buildings. "The aim is to test as many technologies and combinations of technologies as possible," says SFP chief Joakim Hauge. SFP aims to start building in 2012 and to begin operations in 2015.
"We have seen the signature on a very spectacular and potentially important project on renewable energy, where we try to pool our experience in some adventurous and entrepreneurial approaches to exploring the potential of this country and the solar potential of the middle eastern region. Starting in Jordan is really a promising starting point," Jonas Gahr Støre, Norway's minister for foreign affairs said in Amman today.
Read more in the 14 January issue of Science.