The deserts of the world receive more energy from the sun within six hours of one day than humankind consumes within a year. Imagine there was a way to collect, store and transmit all this energy – would both conflicts over limited fossil fuels and excessive emissions of carbon dioxide soon be things of the past? In 2009, a consortium of twelve European businesses has, together with the DESERTEC Foundation, taken on this vision and has presented an ambitious concept which is supposed to provide sustainable energy for North Africa and Europe.
DESERTEC is a technology which helps to identify areas where renewable sources of energy are at their most abundant (for example solar power in the Sahara) and then harnesses this sustainable power. In order to speed up the implementation of the concept in Europe, nations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the DESERTEC Foundation, together with the twelve European companies mentioned above, founded the DESERTEC industrial initiative (Dii). Neither the DESERTEC Foundation nor the Dii build power plants themselves, but they are responsible for carrying out studies on the subject, initiating reference projects, providing know-how and financing and investment guidance.
Dii’s goal is to use green energy generated in North Africa to cover 100% of local power needs and up to 15% of European demands by 2050. Regarding technology, the DESERTEC concept builds on two technical processes in order to generate and transmit electricity. Concentrated solar power (CSP) plants are the designated mean to optimize the generation of thermal solar energy. CSP plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight, which goes on to heat water and produce steam. Then, this steam drives a steam turbine to generate electricity. The important feature of this process is that heat, unlike electricity, can be stored in large heat storage tanks. Thus, fluctuations inherent in other renewable energy sources (like wind and photovoltaic) are avoided as energy can be generated day and night. To transport electricity from the sun-rich deserts to the European mainland, DESERTEC promotes the use of High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission. Its advantages are that the losses are low (about 3% per 1000km), they can be laid underground over long distances and they take up less space than conventional power lines. Although they are expensive, they are the only option to transmit electricity over long distances.
The technology is proven and the project was greeted with plenty of political support upon its formation in 2009 – the German chancellor Angela Merkel sent a note to DESERTEC, praising the project for “helping to forge a broad alliance across business, science and politics to enable big ideas to become reality.” Major companies like Deutsche Bank, Siemens and E.ON. joined the initiative as financial backers, as Dii’s projected budget was set at an enormous €400bn.
Three years later, in 2012, much of the DESERTEC praise is clouded by various stumbling blocks and the fundamental question of whether or not the project is still feasible. To date, not one power plant has been built even though plans made in 2009 suggested that the first desert energy would be transmitted by 2015. Due to substantial conflicts with the Spanish government and general financial issues, it is very unlikely that this goal will be achieved. Only recently, two major industrial backers, the companies Bosch and Siemens, have pulled out of the initiative due to cost-cutting measures.
Yet, DESERTEC is not only losing support from industry, but its political backup is also dwindling. European governments have been hesitant to provide subsidies crucial to the implementation of the project. Public budgets are already over-borrowed, and Spain – a central figure in the project – is occupied with its own economic crisis at the moment. Spain does not only raise financial issues, but it has also recently been the cause for the project’s biggest practical obstacle by refusing to sign a declaration of intent, which would allow Dii to use the already existing underwater transmission cables between Spain and Morocco. Reasons for this refusal are issues with its own overcapacity of solar energy and, simultaneously, a desire to avoid becoming a mere transit country for the energy-hungry countries in central Europe.
Additionally, energy politics are always closely connected to issues of security, and in this respect the Arab Spring has done little to prove the existence of stable conditions in the MENA region to European governments. Professor Peter Droege, head of the European Association for Renewable Energy, sums up the dilemma of the countries involved in the initiative: “One of the main attractions of renewable is to become energy independent.” He added, “If you have tied yourself to another external source you have to pay for, you are missing the entire point of the renewable energy transition we are in.” Importing clean energy from North Africa might only shift Europe’s dependence on energy supply to that region. Yet, it would also be a move towards clean and sustainable energy, which will be inevitable for governments in the future.
DESERTEC has recently faced multiple obstacles, but climate change is a fact and it will demand European governments to move towards sustainable energy sooner rather than later. With continuing negotiations with Spain, and the latest news of China considering an investment in the project, there is still hope and prospect of success for the desert energy. For the sake of the climate, it is worth keeping a close eye on this ambitious energy venture.