One small step for green energy, one giant leap….

July 14, 2009

The idea to tap solar power from the Sahara desert to provide CO2-free electricity for Europe and northern Africa has captured the public’s imagination in Germany after the Desertec Industrial Initiative was formally launched in Munich on Monday. Several German commentators compared the notion of catching the sun’s rays in the Sahara to the boldness of the U.S. space programme in the 1960s with its drive to put a man on the moon. As my colleague Christoph Steitz pointed out in his report, 12 companies took the first step towards the project that could be delivering up to 15 percent of Europe’s power by 2050.Even if it was only the start and details on how it will all work remain sketchy, the Desertec story led the news broadcasts on all the major German networks on Monday and triggered an avalanche of front-page media coverage and editorials, most favourable. Germans see Desertec as a “win-win-win” prospect. It would a) produce CO2-free energy, b) create hundreds of thousands of jobs in Europe and Africa, and c) promote better relations between countries north and south of the Mediterranean through business and trade connections similar to the way Europe grew together after World War Two. There is, of course, another point — d) it could give German companies, many of which have spent the last decade building up their know-how with solar and wind energy, a chance to take advantage of their expertise on an even larger scale.”It’s rare that I’ve been so fascinated by a news item as I have by the idea of using the hot desert as a giant socket,” wrote Bild newspaper’s venerable Franz Josef Wagner, one of Germany’s most popular columnists known for his usual biting criticism. “Desertec is for me the greatest leap for mankind since Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. The hot desert could save humanity. This project is greener than green. Desertec is the bright future.”And Michael Miersch, in a commentary for the conservative daily Die Welt, wrote: “It seems at first glance like some sort of Jules Verne Utopia but it’s nevertheless being backed by 12 large companies that want to invest in it. Even if it falls short of the goal of delivering 15 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050, it is nevertheless a clear start signal — it could possibly mark the beginning of the end of the oil age.”Miersch also likened Desertec to the U.S. space programme and quoted President John F. Kennedy’s rallying cry “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” Miersch wrote: “There is a large choir of critics. But problems are there to be solved.”Joachim Wille wrote a column in the left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau that also compared Desertec to the Apollo programme. “It is far more than just electricity for our sockets. It represents a quantum leap forward into a new energy age.”But Andreas Heitker cautioned in a page one editorial in the Boersen-Zeitung business daily that it was far from unsure if Desertec would ever be built: “Desertec could give a boost to renewable energy in Europe but whether the 400-billion euro project turns out to be anything more than a good idea remains doubtful. It shows quite clearly, in any event, that there is still a great untapped potential for solar energy.”Hamburger Abendblatt columnist Oliver Schade said: “It makes a lot of sense to put such a major project in an area where the sun shines brighter and more often than between Flensburg and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Europe is moving in the right direction by launching a project like this. It sounds like a fairy tale — but in fact solar power plants in North Africa and Arabia could be delivering one in seven kilowatt hours that we need in Europe by the year 2050.”The Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper observed that after Monday’s news conference the executives from the 12 companies that signed the memorandum of understanding were lined up, as planned, for a group picture. But before the assembled photographers could start snapping, the stage quickly filled up with political leaders who were also attending the launch. “It was a situation that was perhaps symbolic — everyone wanted to be part of it and they wouldn’t feel they were part of it if they weren’t in the picture,” wrote the Munich daily’s Thomas Fromm.There is clearly a buzz about Desertec in Germany even if the same level of enthusiasm hasn’t yet been detected in any of the other countries that might be involved. Maybe it has something to do with Germans’ yearning for sunshine and fascination with the sun in their country that is often covered by clouds? Or maybe it has something to do with companies getting a whiff of profits in the air — the sun doesn’t send any bills, after all.PHOTO: A “solucar” solar park in Sanlucar La Mayor, near Seville, November 6, 2008. The solar thermal power plant uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto the top of a 100 metre (300 foot) tower where it produces steam to drive a turbine, producing electricity. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo


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This is news that makes me happy, maybe I still believe in fairytales but I simply have to. Its projects like this that give hope for the future, generate green energy and share wealth at the same time. Its almost too good to be true but 12 large companies backing this plan……..will common sense eventually prevail?

Posted by 12 Weeks Pregnant | Report as abusive

Isn’t there any concern over putting expensive infrastructure into Africa? Local government can change hands and nationalize all that expensive hardware… Just ask Venezuela and the US companies that had refineries there…

Posted by fixman | Report as abusive

Probably not much noticed, but should enough mirrors be focussed on a small volume in space, they can take down aircraft and satellites.

Posted by cort | Report as abusive

The real reason behind this project is certainly that millions acres of unsettled land is there for the taking. This deserted area could in the blank of an eye turn into a megalopolis.

Posted by edwin | Report as abusive

This brilliant idea that is gaining international traction to provide CO2-free electricity for Europe and northern Africa must be given every opportunity to succeed.Central to this is security. Without this the insurance industry and the construction industry will not support it. My suggestion is that the section or zone of the Sahara earmarked as the location should obtain a similar robust status as the original Panama Canal Authority of 1902 along with its own army and police to protect the infrastructure and power-feed to Europe for at least 50 years.With this in place the massive funding necessary will be achieved.RegardsPeter Foster-Bunch

Posted by Peter Foster-Bunch | Report as abusive

Oil companies can’t be put in the same category as most other businesses – maybe they shouldn’t be in Venezuela reaping the rewards and giving little back at a grass root level (another topic altogether).There needs to be faith in African countries and confidence in their people – if the project described or any others with ‘fantastic vision’ are to work, they will be based on mutual co-operation. In this case benefiting Europe and North Africa as a green energy resource and Africa specifically as an enriching infrastructural project. It will ultimately show that co-operation globally is the best and most positive route for all nations/governments to take. Anyway – what else are we going to do on all this sand with desertification a growing global concern?

Posted by African Englishman | Report as abusive

So at night ya’ll are going to burn diesel/natural gas/candles??

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

Excellent idea but I would not put my country’s energy infrastructure in the Sahara under a foreign rule and so far from home.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

Yes. Just one small step for green energy. But we can expect the leap and the future of green energy.

Posted by green-energy | Report as abusive

This is indeed a landmark project.However, Solar power projects in India though not as big are catching up fast. Why is it that western media always covers what happens in West, so many developments are already happening in India and Middle East.I myself work on solar technology and if we compare solar PV power plants to any other power plants, the best advantage is they dont use WATER to generate steam, besides CO2 emissions, water usage and pollution is an equally imp issue for power generation.

Posted by Vikas | Report as abusive