Might Europe’s strive for energy independence from Russia be found in the Sahara?

German physicist Gerhard Knies thinks he’s found the answer to Europe’s long-term energy needs—in the Sahara. The WSJ reports that:

Dr. Knies’s idea seems quixotic in every other sense: Build dozens of solar plants across the North African desert and put thousands of miles of power cables under the Mediterranean Sea to carry the electricity produced to Europe. He says the plan could supply 15% of the Continent’s energy by 2050 at an estimated cost of €400 billion ($529 billion)—more than the gross domestic products of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia combined.

“I see a solution, so the problem is solved,” the white-haired scientist says with an earnest shrug of his shoulders. “Of course, to implement it is something else.”

What distinguishes Dr. Knies’s brainchild from a mere idealist pipe dream is the nominal backing of some of Europe’s biggest corporate names. Last summer, Munich Re,Siemens AG, Deutsche Bank and nine other mostly German companies formed a consortium called the Desertec Industrial Initiative to promote the alternative energy plan. For now, each company is contributing €150,000 to Desertec annually, just enough to open an office and pay a chief executive to chase additional backers.

“Within the next two years we’ll see exactly what regulations we need, what investment volume,” said Siemens CEO Peter Löscher. Should Desertec take off, Munich Re is willing to invest as much as €2 billion, said Peter Höppe, who leads Munich Re’s risk-research unit.

This might seem like a pipe dream. There are many questions about whether the wisest route to energy security is through an investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign deserts.

Skeptics point to a map of proposed Desertec power plant sites stretching from Morocco to Egypt and up the eastern Mediterranean to Turkey. Along with dictatorships and war zones, the route crosses “resource nationalist” regimes such as Libya that could discourage investment, says Samuel Ciszuk, a Middle East and North Africa energy analyst for IHS Global Insight in London.

Hermann Scheer, a German parliamentarian and president of Eurosolar, a nonprofit group that promotes renewable power, has a litany of reasons to doubt Desertec, beginning with its technology: Solar thermal plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and create steam to drive turbines that generate electricity. Most require water for condensation and cooling—a scarce resource in the Sahara.

Desertec supporters say the plants could be built near the sea and incorporate desalination facilities to generate fresh water, but analysts say that could prove cumbersome.

“None of this is in the calculations,” Mr. Scheer says.

African nations might benefit economically, especially those that might host and station transmission lines that run all the way back to Europe.

energy analysts say Desertec’s sweep will probably give way to smaller projects near cities like Cairo, where the demand for electricity is skyrocketing. Some solar or wind-power facilities in Africa might be connected to Europe bilaterally.

In that respect, Desertec is already serving as a catalyst. In May, France—concerned that German corporate interests might dominate the initiative—announced its own project, called Transgreen, to build a network of high-voltage, direct-current cables that would be necessary to carry electricity generated in Africa to Europe.

This month, Desertec’s CEO, Paul van Son, a former Dutch utility executive, said Morocco had agreed to host Desertec’s first pilot project, a 500-1,000 megawatt facility that would combine solar thermal, photovoltaic and wind-power generation.

“Desertec really is not a joke,” Mr. van Son told attendees of a recent energy conference in Berlin.

The European Union this past June backed up plans similar to this, including the 400 billion euro Desertec solar scheme to turn sunlight in the Sahara desert into electricity for power-hungry Europe, to help meet a target of deriving 20 percent of that continent’s energy from renewable sources in 2020.  The EU is backing the construction of new electricity cables, known as inter-connectors, under the Mediterranean Sea to carry this renewable energy from North Africa to Europe.

Europe will import its first solar-generated electricity from North Africa within the next five years, European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in an interview on Sunday.

The European Union is backing projects to turn the plentiful sunlight in the Sahara desert into electricity for power-hungry Europe, a scheme it hopes will help meet its target of deriving 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources in 2020.

“I think some models starting in the next 5 years will bring some hundreds of megawatts to the European market,” Oettinger told Reuters after a meeting with energy ministers from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

He said those initial volumes would come from small pilot projects, but the amount of electricity would go up into the thousands of megawatts as projects including the 400 billion euro Desertec solar scheme come on stream.

“Desertec as a whole is a vision for the next 20 to 40 years with investment of hundreds of billions of euros,” said Oettinger. “To integrate a bigger percentage of renewables, solar and wind, needs time.”

The EU is backing the construction of new electricity cables, known as inter-connectors, under the Mediterranean Sea to carry this renewable energy from North Africa to Europe.

The Desertec consortium includes major European firms such as Siemens, RWE and Deutsche Bank. They are expected to seek public money for the project.

Here are some video reports on the project.


Here is a previous post about Solar energy in Africa.

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