Sahara wind and sun to power EU homes
By Philip Ebels
This year, somewhere in Morocco, work will begin on the construction of what is to become a vast network of solar and wind energy farms all around the Sahara desert to provide 15 percent of Europe's electricity supply by 2050.
The Desertec Industrial Initiative, launched in 2009, is a private consortium of 55 mostly German companies, including Deutsche Bank, Eon, Munich Re and Siemens.
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The undertaking kicks off with a €2 billion solar farm energy from which could be sent through cables sunk across the floor of the Mediterranean Sea and lighting up European living rooms as early as 2014.
The precise date and location are still to be determined pending negotiations. But if all goes well, it will clear the way for the building of other energy farms in Algeria and Tunisia.
"It's all systems go in Morocco," said Paul van Son, chief executive of the Desertec project, in November last year.
Reuters reports him saying in a telephone interview that the Arab spring has only been a good thing.
"We like the Arab Spring because it has opened up a lot of ideas and generated support for the project," he reportedly said. "We're very supportive. The democratic structures fit very well with ours."
The project has secured the support of several European governments, including that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"It is still a dream right now, but it can be a project to connect our two continents, Africa and Europe," Merkel said in December 2010 after meeting Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger has voiced ambivalent feelings on the project, however.
Speaking at the Desertec 2010 annual conference in Barcelona, he "welcomed" the project and "the enthusiasm of the partner companies".
Yet speaking at the German Bundestag's economic affairs committee a few months earlier, Oettinger criticised the project as being "colonial", according to the parliament's press service. Africans have not been properly consulted, he is reported as having said.
Other critics include the late Hermann Scheer, long-time member of the German Bundestag and renewable energy advocate.
"The Desertec project is a fata morgana," he wrote in a press release after the launch of the project in 2009. "The initiators know: There is no prospect of success."
Transporting electricity from Africa to Europe is just too expensive, he argued. It would be cheaper to generate the electricity within the EU.
He added that if it would really help Sahara countries to make the transition to renewable energy he "would fully agree to the Desertec plan," however.
For his part, Van Son is eager to stress that most of the generated power will be for local use. He says that the local population will only benefit from the project, economically as well as politically.
"Questions of energy have the power to effect political unity. This is what happened precisely 60 years ago with the European Coal and Steel Community. Now renewable energies are providing the Arab world with the same opportunity."