Europe has long looked to North Africa as a source for its energy needs. First, the oil fields in Libya, next, natural gas along the southern Mediterranean coast and recently, dreams to tap the region’s vast sunshine as a source of electricity fostered excitement. Such visions make sense: the Sahara surely has plenty of space for photovoltaic panels and solar thermal energy plants, oil has proven to be as big a curse as a blessing to the greater Middle East-Northern Africa region and in the wake of the Arab Spring, clean energy could become an economic stimulus for a region thirsting for jobs.
Such was the goal of the Desertec Industry Initiative (DII), or Desertec, an ambitious plan to harvest Saharan sun, combat carbon emissions and climate change and boost Europe’s energy security. Considering the fact that 90 percent of the world’s population lives within 1800 miles of a desert, such a plan in the long term could be replicated on other continents.
Despite hiccups such as a downward projection of future energy targets, Desertec seemed on track. Then, the King of Morocco decided his people should come first as solar slowly scales across North Africa.
According to the German media company Deutsche Welle (DW), King Mohammed VI threw a wrench into Desertec’s plans by announcing the construction of a partially Saudi-funded Ouarzazate solar plant, a 500 megawatt solar installation 124 miles south of Marrakesh. Ouarzazate is part of the Moroccan government’s plan to generate two gigawatts of electricity from solar energy by 2020. The king’s promotion of Ouarzazate is a setback for German investors, including KfW Development Bank, that have contributed over $150 million to the project. As DW’s Jutta Wasserrab explains, the infusion of cash continued despite the fact that the agreement with the Moroccans left no guarantee Germany, or anywhere in Europe, would benefit from this renewable source of electricity.
Meanwhile, more partners have pulled out of the Desertec plan, so Morocco’s agenda to look elsewhere for solar power could strike a final blow to what could have been as much as a $560 billion plan. Enthusiasm for delivering clean and cheap energy to Europe often masked the risk factors–North Africa’s volatility and the wisdom of investing in any system that smacked of neo-colonialism and criticism, Desertec also lacked a solid business plan to move this massive project forward. The Economist, often skeptical of such ambitious plans, lauded the idea, but excitement has since tempered, and for now the initiative is on hold.
There is no reason why a futuristic pipeline of solar energy could not succeed; the next consortium that tries to implement such a plan, however, could do a better job engaging local stakeholders in North Africa so citizens felt they had a stake in the process. Or, first electrify the cities from Algeria to Egypt, then focus on Europe later.
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credit: Desertec]