New ‘gold rush’ buzz hits Germany over Sahara solar

June 24, 2009

A “gold-rush-like” buzz has spread across Germany in the last week over tentative plans to invest the staggering sum of 400 billion euros to harvest solar power in the Sahara for energy users across Europe and northern Africa. Even though European and Mediterranean Union leaders have been exploring and studying for several years the idea of using concentrated solar power (CSP), the Desertec proposition suddenly captivated the public’s attention a week ago when German reinsurer Munich Re announced it had invited blue chip German companies such as Deutsche Bank, Siemens and several major utilities to a July 13 meeting on the project. The 20 companies aim to sign a memorandum of understanding to found the Desertec Industrial Initiative that could be supplying 15 percent of Europe’s electricity in the decades ahead.

Germany’s deputy foreign minister, Guenter Gloser, has been the government’s point man for the project. I had the chance to talk to him about it.

Question: How did this project to turn the sun in the Sahara into electricity for Europe and north African countries get started?
Guenter Gloser: About 15 months ago Germany and France proposed including the solar plan into the list of projects for the Union for the Mediterranean. There were institutions that had already done research and we thought: ‘Why don’t we use this sun belt where there is such an abundance of sunshine as a source of renewable energy?’ Together Germany, France and Egypt put forth this solar plan as one of the six projects for the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and underscored the fact that it could benefit both sides. It was not an idea where just countries north of the Mediterranean will benefit but rather those countries south of it as well as across the EU would also benefit.

Question: What is the current status of the project?
: We agreed to move forward with the project and want to go forward step-by-step towards its implementation. But obviously neither the EU nor the Arab League will be the principal players but rather private investors. Our task for this project is to create the political framework — for example with setting up of the feed-in tariffs, ensuring the infrastructure is built and ensuring that the renewable energy can be transported to Europe. The political framework can also make it possible to expedite the approvals process. But what is also very important is that the energy produced is also available for countries in the region. For example, Morocco can take advantage of its solar and wind conditions on the Atlantic coast to build solar power plants or wind energy parks to provide energy for its domestic market and to sell energy abroad as well. Even countries such as Algeria, which has fossil fuel reserves, could also use the sun belt for solar thermal power for some of their energy needs — and prolong their fossil fuel reserves.

Question: Is there not risk involved in such large-scale investment in a region with a potential for political instability?
It’s a cooperation that will contribute towards diversifying energy sources, geographically and in terms of energy sources. It’s a truly fascinating project because it’s a win-win for everyone. And the third winner will be the people and institutions that finance this project. Neither the EU nor the countries in the south are capable of financing this on their own. So the question is: can third-parties bringing financing be involved. Energy security is an important issue everywhere. There are energy sources we have today that at times have been somewhat at risk. There’s no contradiction in saying that it’s important to diversify a country’s energy source as well as diversifying the types of energy it receives. It’s not that there is no risk whatsoever but it’s important to keep in mind that there are also some risk factors for other sources of energy that we are now importing.

Question: What impact do you think a project like this could have in the Mediterranean Union?
I think the partnership approach that we have taken could well have a positive influence of stability for the countries taking part as well as the neighbouring nations. The EU has been enlarged and come closer together in the past decades but there hasn’t been as much of that among Arab countries. Perhaps it would be possible through certain projects, such as this solar energy project or water projects or transportation routes, to increase the cooperation among those countries.

Question: There have been fears expressed that Europe would be exploiting natural resources in Africa, raising fears of a new sort of ‘colonisation’. What would you say to those fears?
It is not in any way an issue of the north dominating the south. It is not only the north that is interested in acquiring renewable energy but rather other users are interested. And if that mutual need for energy leads to a project that satisfies all sides then that is in my view a good route to take. I don’t think there’s any justification for the notion of this being an ‘energy colonisation’ or anything like that at all. It’s a mutually beneficial project.”

Question: How high is the interest in other countries? Some cynics would say Germany’s expertise in renewable energies gives it a big advantage.
So far the countries in the south and north have been in agreement about the project. Now the task is to identify the next steps. There are countries in both the south and north that are more interested in the project than others — because, for example, they already have had positive experiences with renewable energy. That is not only Germany but also Spain and other countries. And on the other side of the Mediterranean there are countries that will have more interest at first than others.

Question: Some might see this project somewhat cynically as a vehicle to help German companies that already have such a considerable head start in know-how with renewable energy. What would you say to them?
Obviously there are some important players (in Germany). But they are not only in Germany. Certainly we have built up a renewable energy sector in Germany, thanks to the right political framework a decade ago, that has created an enormous number of jobs. But Spain has also had an enormous development in recent years and in Denmark the wind energy sector has reached a large dimension with considerable know-how. But beyond those countries there are many other countries with companies and suppliers for the industry.

Question: Are there problems on the horizon being overlooked?
In my eyes the biggest problem right now is that the expectations have possibly been raised too high. I’m someone who’s thought: that’s agreat idea and why don’t we take advantage of all these things at hand: know-how, sun belt, political cooperation, development, stability, security, partnership. There are so many positive aspects that come together. Now it’s time to come up with some realistic timetables and see how we can move forward step-by-step to make this project a reality.

PHOTO: Mirrors are seen channelling sunlight onto a tube filled with oil during the dedication of Acciona’s Nevada Solar One power plant in Boulder City, southeast of Las Vegas February 22, 2008. The 400-acre, 64-megawatt, concentrating solar power (CSP) plant is the third largest in the world, according to Acciona. The plant produces energy to power about 14,000 homes. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus


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They’ve finally seen the light, there is so much potential for solar power in the world, this is the Sahara but just imagine how many more vast deserts there are on this planet and all the green energy that they could generate.

Posted by Nikkei 225 | Report as abusive

Good Idea. I’ve been advocating it for some time, but I don’t have the power or influence to make it happen. They could combine the solar and wind power with tidal power (Atlantic coast – especially for pumping water) and with desalination and solar greenhouse technologies for Northern African and Southern European countries. It should also promote self-sufficiency for local people in those places – not economic exploitation of them by others. That is to say, the technology must be controlled by the people. If it doesn’t do this, the project won’t achieve it’s full potential.

Posted by farnaby | Report as abusive

Far from over-selling this, its problem so far is under-expectation. Physically, this has the potential to power the whole of Europe for far less investment and running cost than any other available technology or fuel. And it’s tried and tested, been in use since the 1980s. And as the interview stresses, it benefits the hosting regions just as much, both in income and energy provision, so it’s a political win-win. There are also local by-products such as desalinated water and irrigation: maybe the Sahara can even be re-greened as a carbon sink. The problem has been the opposition of the oil and nuclear lobbies, and also an absurd nationalism, so in UK we’re told that we don’t have the sun for it here. In all the publicity I’ve seen, even from the environmental lobby, CSP is listed (if at all) in among a bunch of far less effective measures, and usually somewhere down the end of that list. On the plus side, it seems that China is on the case now, so if our leaders don’t get on with it, watch out for the Chinese CSP installers and manufacturers.

Posted by Rachel Lever | Report as abusive

It’s a bold project. I worry about the political instability too.If ever unrest breaks out, it is a financial as well as economic disaster, since any group that takes over the control of this project is practically holding Europe hostage.

Posted by scheng1 | Report as abusive