Europe Looks to Africa for Solar Power

Last updated on March 10th, 2024 at 03:17 pm

NEW YORK — The European project known as Desertec is nothing if not ambitious. It aims to harvest the sun’s energy – using a method known as concentrating solar power, or C.S.P. – from the vast North African desert and deliver it as electricity, via high-voltage transmission lines, to markets in Europe. Eventually, its backers say, it could satisfy as much as 15 percent of the European Union’s power needs.

The idea, which has been bouncing around for years, arises out of an alphabet soup of organizations, formal multinational partnerships and regional acronyms like TREC, for Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation; Eumena, or European Union, the Mediterranean and North Africa; the Union of the Mediterranean; and the Club of Rome.

As James Kanter reported in our Green Inc. blog, the project took a step forward last week when a consortium of German businesses announced plans to pursue financing and otherwise hammer out details for Desertec, which is expected to cost about €400 billion, or $555 billion.

Munich Re, the large German insurance company, is leading the charge to bring the concept to fruition, and a meeting is scheduled for mid-July to formalize the coalition, which includes companies like Siemens, Deutsche Bank and the energy giant E.On.

“The time now is perfect to start this initiative,” Alexander Mohanty, a Munich Re spokesman, said in an e-mail message Friday, “as climate protection has become an urgent issue and our economies need new impulses.”

Large-scale C.S.P. projects – essentially expansive fields of solar collectors, or mirrors, that concentrate rays from the intense desert sun to heat water, generate steam, drive turbines and produce electricity – are not revolutionary. Such projects have been undertaken in the U.S. Southwest, Spain and elsewhere.

This would take things to a whole new level, however, and as conceived, Desertec would be the largest centralized solar power production project on earth.

That such an ambitious, clean-energy megaproject should be taking a step forward, however incremental, might suggest that deep-pocketed investors have truly seen the writing on the wall with regard to legislated carbon abatement and the slow phase-out of fossil fuels.

In a collection of reactions gathered by Spiegel Online, several observers seemed to welcome the development.

“The project is sending a strong signal that investments in renewable energies don’t just make ecological sense,” wrote The Financial Times Deutschland, “they make economic sense as well.”

A reader at Green Inc. simply said: “Europeans need energy and have cash. Africans have sun and territory. It is quite logical to combine all this.”

But not everyone was convinced.

Some scratched their heads at the idea of spending billions of dollars to harvest sunlight and transmit electricity thousands of kilometers, when it can be produced increasingly efficiently in European backyards.

“It must once again be pointed out that the most successful method of harvesting solar power is with rooftop panels,” wrote the German daily Die Tageszeitung. “In just three to five years, power from the roof will be cheaper than electricity from the wall plug. The economic bar for desert power is, in other words, high. Solar power produced in a decentralized manner will likely always be the cheaper variety.”

The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, meanwhile, quoted Frank Asbeck, the chief executive of SolarWorld, the largest German solar company, as saying, “Building solar power plants in politically unstable countries opens you to the same kind of dependency as the situation with oil.”

Or in the somewhat more blunt vernacular of a Green Inc. reader: “If this project is built, Europe will shortly become dependent on it, and the Islamic world will have a second, and much tighter, noose to add to the oil one.”

That Mr. Asbeck’s interests lie with a competing solar technology – photovoltaics – is of no small consequence, but there were still other critics who complained that the project smacked of Euro-imperialism – particularly given the history of resource exploitation on the African continent.

“Haven’t we already been here before?” wrote Agatha Koprowski at Green Inc. last week. Ms. Koprowski is a graduate student of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a resident, with her husband, of Morocco – one of the African countries likely to become a hub in the Desertec system.

“Europeans covet Africa’s wealth of natural resources,” she continued, “so they make economic investments for the benefit of Europeans and the detriment of Africans.”

Gerhard Knies, the coordinator of TREC and chairman of Desertec’s supervisory board, suggested by telephone Friday that all of these concerns were misplaced.

Ownership of the facilities, for example, would follow several different models, Mr. Knies said, but in every case, local needs would come first. The main obstacle, he said, is money, which is where European investors come in.

“They can go 100 percent on this source of electricity,” he said, referring to potential North African partners like Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, “and there is no coupling to what they might build for export.”

As for political stability, Mr. Knies was dubious.

“Well, when you look at the Mediterranean region, the most unstable country is Italy,” he said, adding that in any case, the investment in large-scale energy projects in these areas would provide income, jobs and the creation of a new industry – all of which, Mr. Knies said, were “a contribution to stability.”

He also suggested that the additional transmission costs of such a project would be smaller than the gains associated with improved solar radiation in the African desert. The additional power yield, Mr. Knies said, would more than compensate for the cost of transmission to European markets.

Whether or not those economics pan out, and however realistic Mr. Knies’s portrayal of the mutual benefits that might accrue to the project’s member countries, the sheer size and scope of the Desertec plan seemed to stir passions far and wide last week.

An American organization supporting the perennial fringe presidential candidate, Lyndon LaRouche, for example, called Desertec – rather inexplicably – a “genocidal, Malthusian, energy plan.”

Setting aside such unhinged broadsides, Mr. Knies was philosophical – and suggested that critics of the plan were simply missing the larger implications of an international cooperative like Desertec.

“I think they overlook the positive side of this interdependence, which creates win-win situations for the participating sides,” he said. “And that is how neighbors become friends.”

2 thoughts on “Europe Looks to Africa for Solar Power

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