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?
Gloser: 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?
Gloser: 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.