Desertec: sustainable solution or a pipe dream

Deserts receive more energy in six hours than all the people in the world consume in an entire year.

An ambitious project envisioned by a group of German business and political leaders aims to harness energy from the world’s largest desert to provide clean electricity to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

A proposed €400-billion will need to be invested in the next 40 years, making it the biggest privately financed renewable energy project. Getting it under way is proving to be a mammoth undertaking in political manoeuvring. Although there seems to be progress, Desertec, as it is known, has its fair share of critics.

The project aims to reduce fossilfuel dependency drastically in the Eumena (Europe, Middle East and North Africa) region by 2050. It was conceived by the Trans- Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation, a think-tank of scientists and engineers, then strengthened by the establishment of the Desertec Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in Berlin.

Then on July 13 12 major German engineering, finance and utilities companies, including Deutsche Bank and Siemens, signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the Desertec Industrial Initiative to develop the framework further.

Desertec aims to use tried-andtested technology, namely concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) plants and high-voltage direct current transmission lines (HVDC).

Desertec is not envisioned as a centralised solar power station, but as a transcontinental network of solar power sites, supplemented by wind and hydro power.

Besides the obvious benefits of clean energy without carbon dioxide emissions, other positive spin-offs are envisioned for North African states: export earnings, jobs, drinking water from desalinating sea water using ‘waste heat” and even renewed potential for agriculture, using this water in the shade of solar panels.

For Europe Desertec presents a way out of its dependency on Russian oil and gas. With the technology and investors in place, Desertec is waiting for the political coordination to enable the creation of a single super-smart electricity grid for the Eumena region. Some expect this to take at least two decades.

As a first step, the Union for the Mediterranean has been established, with a flagship Mediterranean solar plan as a forerunner to Desertec. A solar power and drinking water plant in Egypt to supply the Gaza Strip is being touted as a pilot project.

On paper Desertec seems like an exciting prospect. Yet the reactions of those in the know range from cautious optimism to downright scepticism. Interestingly, the most vocal criticism of Desertec has come from the very top.

Dr Hermann Scheer is a member of the German Parliament, president of Eurosolar and general chairperson of the World Council for Renewable Energy. The so-called ‘pope of solar energy” calls Desertec a Fata Morgana (a mirage) and claims even its initiators know that ‘there is no prospect of success”.

A more feasible solution, he says, would be to spend the money on generating power from renewable energy within the European Union. ‘Quickly expanding the development of renewable energy within Europe requires decentralised, dispatchable power generation that can be fed into the grid quickly, instead of base-load power stations built in the desert.”

Decentralisation is the only solution, Scheer says, both practically and financially. At the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a development organisation linked to Germany’s Green Party, Tilman Santarius doubts the overall developmental aspirations and social sustainability of the Desertec project: ‘Large-scale investments by foreign companies do not by definition generate economic diversity and low-carbon development in the producing countries,” he says.

‘As it stands Desertec is not much interested in generating wealth in the producing countries. So, if the investments would take place today, most of the profit would drain to the North and little value would be added in the producing countries of Northern Africa or the near and Middle East.”

Thorben Becker from Bund, the German affiliate of Friends of the Earth, is similarly sceptical. ‘If there is high potential for solar-thermal power plants in North Africa, we think this should be used to produce electricity for Africa rather than to fulfil the exaggerated need for electricity in Europe.

‘Europe should rather invest in energy efficiency and in the generation of renewable energies within its own borders before reaching out to a continent that has development needs in which electricity supply will play a crucial role,” he says.

‘We support the idea of using desert power because we urgently need clean alternatives to nuclear and coal power,” says Andree Boehling of Greenpeace Germany.

‘Desertec is a real and sustainable approach — a big difference to other renewable sources,” he says. But ‘we need a cooperative approach between Africa, the Middle East and Europe; otherwise the idea will fail. We need a political framework for investments, social and ecological evaluations. The desert regions have to benefit from the technology as well.”

If the solution is as clear as Desertec proponents make it out to be, then why are so many experts still keeping their distance?

Is Europe clambering for another African natural resource under a smoke screen of development rhetoric?

Or is this a genuine attempt by Germany to lend its money and expertise to an international project in which all will benefit?

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on our chances of rescuing our planet. Despite the criticism, Desertec represents one of the few coordinated attempts to exploit solar power on a large scale. It may not save the planet on its own, but it could foreseeably set an example of regional cooperation to pave the way for other projects in the future.

Dave Durbach is a freelance journalist from Cape Town who worked in Berlin this year as part of the International Journalists’ Programme Southern African Bursary

Desertec and South Africa
While Desertec is unlikely to have a direct impact here in South Africa, continued interest in the project could well grease the wheels of initiatives far beyond the Eumena (Europe, Middle East and North Africa) region.

South Africa is well placed to enjoy the potential benefits of solar power, without having to coordinate government policies and infrastructure on different continents.

Concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) plants can be implemented here decades before Desertec is up and running at the other end of Africa.

Eskom’s R5-billion, 100MW CSP ‘demonstration plant” in Upington in the Northern Cape is expected to be completed by 2014. If successful, we can look forward to a larger 1 000MW plant, part of Eskom’s plan to add 1 600MW of renewable energy to its grid by 2025.

Upington receives higher annual radiation than sites in the southwestern US, Middle East and North Africa.

The only factor that could stall CSP development in South Africa is its cost in relation to fossil fuels, the abundance of which makes coal-powered electricity relatively cheap here.

If a transnational project such as Desertec proves successful, South Africa could follow this example and help supply clean energy to the rest of the continent or help facilitate local production in other African countries.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

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