Shadow looms over plan to export solar power from Sahara to Europe
The Desertec project has cooled following a split over when to begin sending natural energy from Africa to Europe
The plan was as obvious as it was daring: to harness the sun over the Sahara Desert and supply Europe with an endless supply of clean energy.
But now the Desertec project is falling apart, four years after its high-profile launch in Germany.
Back in happier days, the confident Desertec consortium suggested it could solve Europe’s growing energy problems by tapping the searing sun of the Sahara, where it said the sand is blasted with more energy in a few hours than the planet uses in a year.
Desertec’s idea: to establish massive solar farms on the verge of the Saharan desert and transmit the energy generated via high-tech, low-loss electricity cables beneath the Mediterranean Sea to Spain and the rest of the Europe.
Now its €600 million pilot project dubbed “Sawian” – co-operation in Arabic – faces an uncertain future due to, ironically enough, a breakdown in the co-operation between the consortium’s partners.
Multiple rows over corporate governance and strategic objectives wracked the group in recent months, prompting prominent partners such as Siemens and Bosch to retreat from the project. Of the 50 initial consortium partners, around 20 have left.
The latest blow is the split between the two sides of the Desertec project: the non-profit Desertec foundation that developed the idea and the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) charged with realising it. Both sides insist the project can still be realised – just not with each other.
“The world’s deserts are large and still haven’t been recognised as a significant source of energy or, in case of being recognised, they aren’t used,” the foundation said in a statement after its withdrawal.
The foundation – a civil society group headed by scientists, politicians and economists – blames the break-down on a cultural clash between their own environmental and climate goals and “aggressive industrial politics” at the Dii consortium, where shareholders include Deutsche Bank, Munich Re and energy giants RWE and E.ON.
“It was always clear to us that it would be no easy task – rather full of challenges – to implement the idea of producing electricity in the earth’s desserts,” said Thiemo Gropp, a co-founder of the Desertec Foundation, to the Süddeutsche newspaper.
The foundation, which came up with the Desertec name and concept, was particularly concerned about potential reputational damage thanks to corporate in-fighting at Dii’s Munich headquarters. For months Dii executives had argued over how ambitious the initial stage of the North Africa project should be.
Dii chief executive Paul van Son urged consortium members to accept a more modest launch: to get the solar parks running but to hold off on energy delivery to Europe. Since the launch of the project, he argued, Europe had experienced energy over-supply. That changed the fundamentals of Saharan solar energy exports, as well as the fact that Morocco is now importing energy from Europe to fill its own growing demands.
In April van Son reportedly declared “dead” the plan to export Saharan solar energy to Europe, but his co-director insisted the company should stick to its two-pronged strategy of energy production and export to Europe.
The row has been settled with the Dutch-born van Son victorious, but observers say the collateral damage – in particular the withdrawal of the Desertec Foundation’s backing – can’t be underestimated.
“We’re not happy about the decision, but it does not affect the realisation of desert power in the Middle East or North Africa,” said Klaus Schmidtke, Dii communications head. He insisted the project is “very much alive”.
Even if calm returns to the Munich-based company, it still faces considerable structural problems. For instance Spain, the key transit partner for the project, has refused to sign a declaration of intent to connect high-power voltage lines between Morocco and the rest of Europe.
Talks are continuing at international level between Spain, France, Morocco and Germany.
Meanwhile the interest of the German government – a key early backer of the project– has begun to wane because of the gloomy global economic outlook and political concerns over the stability of northern African countries.
Now it appears likely that northern African countries will realise their own version among themselves of the project envisioned by the European consortium.
Morocco, one of the proposed locations of Desertec energy farms, is pushing ahead with plans to draw over 40 per cent of its energy from renewables by the end of the decade.
Alongside wind and hydropower, Morocco is pushing an ambitious plan to install solar plants with a combined output of 2.0 GW by 2020.