Desertec Solar Power Project Gains Steam, Critics

saharaskull2As the international Saharan solar initiative Desertec moves forward, a fleet of critics have appeared, who were apparently not invited to the heavily covered inaugural press conference July 13th.

In terms of progress, Desertec can report that some Saharan governments have already expressed interest in the project. Said Mouline, head of Morocco’s renewable energy agency, said his country has identified sites for the network of solar thermal plants that would generate electrical power to be shared between Africa and Europe, according to a Reuters article.

Morocco imports 96% of its energy, a heavy burden on the developing nation. “We would be generating enough power for us, and for export, for the next 100 years,” said Mouline.

Geopolitical Nightmare

But as independent analysts observed, sticky geopolitical and economic issues could stymie Desertec before it becomes much more than a website. As Triple Pundit noted last month, the $573 billion solar power project would require cooperation between over a dozen nations. Many of these countries have tense relations with each other — the border between Morocco and Algeria, for instance, is closed because of a dispute over the western Sahara.

From the Reuters story:

“Sahara power for northern Europe is a mirage,” said Hermann Scheer, a member of the German Parliament and the head of the European Association for Renewable Energy. “Those behind the project know themselves that nothing will ever come out of this.”

In fact, a list of the nations theoretically involved, like Algeria, Sudan or Mali, should not inspire investor confidence from the multinational corporations Desertec will need to bring the project to fruition.

Red tape and corruption are also major obstacles. Algeria has said it will only participate if partnerships are set up between Western companies and domestic ones, including the transfer of technical know-how. Imagine the same difficult negotiations happening with twelve or more nations at the same time.

Solar Panels & Al Qaeda

Photovoltaic power suppliers, on the other hand, argue that decentralized power generation, from, for instance, rooftop residential solar panels, will prove more cost-effective than the massive infrastructure build-out necessary for Desertec. Solar panel prices continue to drop, and cheap PV could be a solution to providing electricity in rural Africa, where there is often no transmission infrastructure.

Other concerns include terrorist attacks on infrastructure, Saharan sandstorms, and supplies of water to clean and service the thermal power stations.

To Boldly Go Where No Utility Has Gone Before…

The lure of big, epic projects is built into our DNA. While Desertec may never happen, its supersized ambition has gotten people talking about renewable energy, about global North-South issues, and the cost benefits of international cooperation, and that can only be a good thing.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

3 responses

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