May 30, 2011

The Great North African Solar Saga

From Spiegel Online International:
The Desertec project first got energy experts and the public buzzing back in 2009, when the plans were announced. The grand -- some would say grandiose -- idea is to construct a network of concentrating solar-thermal power systems in North African deserts to produce green electricity that can be used at the local level -- and ultimately exported to European countries.
Proponents of the project argue that the amount of solar energy falling on the Sahara is so enormous that plants covering 90,000 square kilometers of the desert -- a tiny fraction of its total area of 9 million square kilometers -- could meet the energy needs of the entire world. Desertec hopes that the project will cover a significant amount of North African and Middle Eastern electricity demand by 2050, as well as providing at least 15 percent of Europe's electricity.
The project, which is expected to cost around €400 billion ($566 billion) and which is still at the planning stage, is being pushed forward by the nonprofit Desertec Foundation together with the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII). The latter is an industrial consortium that includes such major German players as Deutsche Bank, Siemens, E.on and Munich Re. It aims to create the "legal, regulatory, economic and technical framework" that will allow the Desertec vision to become reality.
The DII plan has been met with enthusiasm by some, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But others have derided the project as unrealistic, arguing that it is too expensive or too challenging technically. Others point out the political problems associated with carrying out a huge multinational project in such an unstable part of the world.
Indeed, participants in the Berlin conference argued that, given the current upheaval in the region, a certain level of stability is needed before Desertec can act on its plans. "I cannot put 1,000 men on duty to guard every solar panel," said Abdelaziz Bennouna, formerly of the National Center for Science and Technology in Morocco. "Social peace is a must."
Unrest in the region also has the drawback of scaring off investors, points out Greenpeace Germany's Andree Böhling. Nevertheless, Böhling believes that democratization is still a step in the right direction, both for the people of the region and for Desertec. . . .
Kirsten Westphal of the SWP feels that it is essential to have an open discussion on the issue of neo-colonialism. "The common opinion coming out of (the Middle East and North Africa) is that Desertec has a hidden agenda rather than producing a win-win situation," she says. Greenpeace's Andree Böhling also pointed to the need to confront fears of neocolonial motives head-on, through open dialogue. . . .

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