Power from the deserts

Twenty blue-chip German companies are to pool their resources to harness solar power in the deserts of North Africa and transport the clean electricity to Europe.

The businesses, which include some of the biggest names in European energy, finance and manufacturing, will form a consortium next month. If successful, the plan could see Europe fuelled by solar energy within a decade, they said.

The consortium behind what would be the biggest solar energy initiative will first raise awareness and interest among other investors for the project, known as Desertec, which is estimated to cost about €400-billion.

Torsten Jeworrek, board member of Munich Re, the German reinsurer leading the project, said: “We want to found an initiative which, in the next two to three years, will put concrete measures on the table.”

As with other reinsurers, Munich Re has said it is expecting to face mounting claims in the coming years for damage caused by climate change.

The companies, including Siemens, Deutsche Bank and the energy giants, RWE and Eon, met on July 13 in Munich and signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a feasibility plan.

They emphasised that the project is a chance for them to drive forward the fight against climate change and position themselves at the top of the green technology industry.

Germany, despite its relative lack of sun, has become a leader in solar energy.

The energy potential in the deserts is enormous. According to the European Commission’s Institute for Energy, if just 0.3% of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle Eastern deserts were captured, it could provide all of Europe’s energy.

The Desertec project aims to build solar power plants in several locations in North Africa.

Jeworrek said the “most important criteria” were that the locations were “in politically stable lands”.

Morocco, Libya and Algeria have been cited as potential sites, where land is also cheap.

The technique, “concentrating solar power”, or CSP, uses banks of mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a central column filled with water. The rays heat the water, turning it to steam which is used to drive turbines that generate carbon-free electricity. The energy would then be fed via high-voltage direct current transmission lines to Europe.

Hans Muller-Steinhagen of Germany’s Aerospace Agency said it is technically possible, albeit expensive, to transport the energy over thousands of kilometres. He said solar energy from the desert is already being harvested but only in isolated plants. CSP plants operate in the American west, and independent plants are being set up in Spain, Morocco, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates.

But the projects have suffered from investors’ nervousness about the expense of the required grid infrastructure, as well as the cheapness of fossil fuels.
German representatives of environmental groups welcomed the news.

“Businesses have finally recognised that renewable energies belong to the future and in times of economic crisis this also sends out an important signal for economic growth,” said Andree Bohling of Greenpeace.

WWF Germany’s climate expert, Regine Gunther, said that although the initiative is a step in the right direction, it is important to ensure Africa benefits from the project.

Previous suggestions have included allowing host countries to retain a proportion of the electricity for nothing.

A note of caution was struck by a German MP, Hermann Scheer, president of Eurosolar, the European Association for Renewable Energy. He warned that costs could be vastly higher and deadlines could be missed because of logistical problems such as sandstorms.

“I would urge the investors to stay clear of it,” he said.—

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