Harvesting Solar Power in North Africa: Progress or Neocolonialism?

A massively ambitious clean power project is underway in North Africa. The German insurance giant, Munich Re, announced last week that they are currently recruiting several European mega-investors to fund a project called Desertec. The project will build solar farms across North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt. Desertec will use a method called concentrating solar power, or C.S.P., which consists of huge mirrors that generate steam to power turbines. The turbines generate electricity, which will then be sent back to Europe via high-voltage direct current cables.

It is said that the power created by Desertec could light up 15% of the European Union. It may be a hyperbolic claim, but with financial backers like Siemens, E.On and Deutsche Bank, something tells me that Desertec may be prepared to make good on its promises.
The vast project will entail networks of solar farms, mile after mile of HVDC cables and scores of converter stations. The operation is estimated to cost upwards of $550 billion. And it will be the largest centralized solar power production project on the planet.
A revolutionary project liked Desertec has complex pros and cons. Generating enough renewable energy to satisfy 15% of Europe’s power needs is an exciting thought. The large-scale investors behind the project are evidence that big business is starting to take clean power seriously. All science aside, a project like this could become internationally iconic. Desertec will take years to build, creating thousands of skilled green jobs. The project is also scalable and easy to reproduce. Desertec could pave the way for the United States to build C.S.P. farms in Mexico. Or for Argentina to develop C.S.P. in Antarctica.
The project also has undeniable cons. The North African region is not exactly politically stable, representing a huge risk for Desertec investors and local African communities. In addition, Germany has been a leader in roof-top solar power production, but some German citizens worry that a project of this size on a different continent might cannibalize some of the domestic German subsidies. And how many of those green jobs would actually go to Africans? What is the value-add for North African citizens? Finally, isn’t this just a form of ongoing euro-imperialism? Europe and America have stolen Africa’s resources for so long, it feels almost natural to harvest their sunlight as well.
I’m wary of projects like this because the term “economic development” scares me. Desertec intends to sustainably harvest the sun’s rays to power part of Europe. It sounds phenomenal, but how is it different than damming the Ecuadorian Amazon for hydropower? Are we just selling our progressive ideas to Africa, promising them that it will enrich their lives in some way? Gerhard Knies, the chairman of Desertec’s supervisory board, promises that the solar farms in Africa will have several ownership models and that the first priority of the project is to respect local needs. I would like Mr. Knies to tell the world whether or not Africans will be allowed to keep any of the energy created by the solar farms on their land.
I am enthralled by the idea of such a large-scale renewable energy project. Part of sustainable development, however, is asking the question: how will this impact the people that belong to the land? Many humanitarian errors have been made in the name of “development.” We have to make sure that projects like Desertec are not just neocolonialism, stealing sun rather than gold.

Rebecca Greenberg is an MBA candidate at the Presidio School of Management. Prior to her studies at Presidio, her professional experience was primarily focused in corporate retail merchandising at both Gap Inc. and Williams-Sonoma, Inc. Having traveled extensively in the developing world and having worked in corporate America, Rebecca is very passionate about applying business principles to sustainable development and poverty alleviation. Rebecca.Greenberg@presidiomba.org

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