Desperate for renewable energy to meet its climate change objectives and to replace nuclear power (in the case of Germany, Switzerland and Italy), Europe has big plans for the North African desert.  Using concentrated solar power, the Desertec project hopes to  provide 15 % of Europe’s electricity needs and help the continent achieve its target of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020.  (Desertec Foundation website)

The North Africa Solar project plans to construct a network of solar plants that generate electricity by concentrating the heat from sunlight to make electricity, generating 100 gigawatts or the equivalent of 100 large nuclear facilities. At the same time it would build a grid of high-voltage transmission lines that would carry the power from Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria to European cities.

It will be undertaken in North Africa and the Middle East by the consortium Dii GmbH, formed by a group of 12 European companies and the Desertec Foundation. The idea was initiated in 2003 by the Club of Rome and the German Trans Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation.

 

 

The concept was the creation of 15 European scientists and 25 scientists from the Middle East and North Africa.  From the designers and investors view point, this is a realistic way to fight climate change, help Europe meet its renewable energy targets, and create badly needed employment in highly volatile Middle Eastern countries.

The World Bank believes that North Africa could create 80,000 jobs in construction and manufacturing if it can produce between 5 and 7 gigawatts of electricity.  Currently, a 500-megawatt solar concentration plant is under way in Morocco.  France, which is funding this plant, calls it “the centerpiece of the Mediterranean solar plan”.

Despite the political turmoil in the region culminating in the Arab Spring of 2011 and the Libyan war, scientists throughout the region believe the end result will be viable democracies that will better enable projects like Desertec and the economic transformation of the region.

Others doubt Europe’s largess and view this as simply one more example of Europe coveting and taking Africa’s resources as it did during 19th century imperialism.  Some think that Desertec is just another version of European colonization while others say that if Europe really wanted to help Africa, the energy should flow to the neediest parts of the continent rather than to Europe.   In the words of Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe, who coordinates the African Network for Solar Energy:

“Europeans make promises, but at the end of the day, they bring their engineers, they bring their equipment, and they go. It’s a new form of resource exploitation just like in the past. Desertec is a good idea. I’m not saying it’s not a good idea. But knowing how the multinationals exploit in such countries, we have reason to be skeptical.”

Clearly to be successful, Middle Eastern and African nations will need assurances that they will own the projects rather than having Europe impose them.

For more on Desertec see Desert Powered Progress in the European Energy Review.

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