According to May, an area of 3. She argues that an area of kilometres x kilometres the biggest box on the image would be enough to meet the total electricity demand of the world. What is Desertec? For the sake of clarity, it is worth differentiating between the Desertec Foundation and the Desertec Industrial Initiative.

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Africa A plan to power Europe from Saharan solar plants seems to have stalled, but several large North African solar projects are still going ahead despite local concerns. Hamza Hamouchene asks: where did the Desertec project go wrong, and can desert solar power yet play a role in a democratic and sustainable future? The Ivanpah solar concentrating power station in California.

Coming soon to the Sahara? Nadine May According to May, an area of 3. She argues that an area of kilometres x kilometres the biggest box on the image would be enough to meet the total electricity demand of the world. The amount of electricity needed by the EU states could be produced on an area of kilometres x kilometres assuming solar collectors that could capture per cent of the energy.

Nevertheless, the map is a good illustration of the potential of solar power and how little space would be needed to power the entire planet. These ideas laid the groundwork for Desertec. What is Desertec? For the sake of clarity, it is worth differentiating between the Desertec Foundation and the Desertec Industrial Initiative.

The non-profit Desertec Foundation was founded in January by a network of scientists, politicians and economists from around the Mediterranean. This should, they hope, provide opportunities for prosperity and help protect the climate. A map of the most cost-effective distribution of renewable-energy sources in , based on simulations run by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Karlsruhe, Germany.

These generators would be connected to continental Europe via special high voltage, direct current transmission cables. To understand the thinking behind Desertec, we need to consider some history. The UfM is designed to follow in their footsteps, furthering EU economic interests and reducing the need for energy imports from Russia.

Promoting a renewable energy partnership was seen as a priority core project towards achieving these goals. It is within this context of pro-corporate trade deals and a scramble for influence and energy resources that we should understand the Desertec project and especially its industrial arm, the Dii. Desertec could play a role in diversifying energy sources away from Russia as well as contributing to EU targets of reducing carbon emissions — and what better region to achieve these aims than MENA, an area well endowed with natural resources, from fossil fuels to sun and wind.

This is a genuine concern given the language used in different articles and publications describing the potential of the Sahara in powering the whole world. The Sahara is described as a vast empty land, sparsely populated; constituting a golden opportunity to provide Europe with electricity so it can continue its extravagant consumerist lifestyle and profligate energy consumption. Where will the water come from that will cool the solar power plants? And what do the locals get from it all?

There is nothing inherently wrong or dishonest in the Desertec idea. On the contrary, the goal of providing sustainable clean energy for the planet to fight global warming is to be lauded. But like any other idea, the questions of who uses it, how it is implemented, for what agenda and in which context it is being promoted, are of great importance. However, if Desertec is really serious about addressing those crises, it needs to target their structural causes.

Being an apolitical techno-fix, it promises to overcome these problems without fundamental change, basically maintaining the status quo and the contradictions of the global system that led to these crises in the first place. Moreover, by presenting the Euro-Med region as a unified community we are all friends now and we need to fight against a common enemy! This perspective hides the historical responsibilities of the industrialized West, the problems of the capitalist energy model, and the different vulnerabilities between countries of the North and the South.

The MENA region is one of the regions hardest hit by climate change, despite producing less than 5 per cent of global carbon emissions, with water supplies in the area being particularly affected.

The spread of solar energy initiatives that further plunder these increasingly-scarce water resources would be a great injustice. Desertec also provides PR cover to major energy businesses and oil and gas-fuelled regimes.

Eventually, however, the fall in the price of solar panels and wind turbines in the EU led the consortium to concede in that Europe can provide for most of its clean energy needs indigenously. The tensions between the foundation and Dii culminated in a divorce between the two in July as the former preferred to distance itself from the management crisis and disorientation of the industrial consortium. Where is Desertec now?

For some people, the shrinking of Dii signalled the demise of Desertec. However, with or without Dii, the Desertec vision is still going ahead with projects in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Despite its stated ideals about powering Africa, the Desertec foundation is backing the Tunur project in Tunisia, a joint venture between Nur Energy, a British-based solar developer and a group of Maltese and Tunisian investors in the oil and gas sector. It explicitly describes itself as a large solar power export project linking the Sahara desert to Europe that will dispatch power to European consumers starting in Given that Tunisia depends on its neighbour Algeria for its energy needs and that it faces increasingly frequent power cuts , it would be outrageous to say the least to proceed with exports rather than producing for the local market.

It was originally envisioned as an export project, but failed to secure Spanish government support for an undersea cable; the project is now promoted as a means for Morocco to increase its own renewable energy supply. However, the role of transnational companies in the project is still attracting criticism.

He sees projects like Ourzazate as a threat to national sovereignty in the clean energy sector, because crucial decisions that affect the whole population are being taken by a handful of technocrats, far from any democratic process or consultation.

Any project concerned with producing sustainable energy must be rooted in local communities, geared towards providing and catering for their needs and centred around energy and environmental justice.

This is even more important when we think about the issue in the context of the Arab Uprisings and the demands of the revolutions: bread, freedom, social justice and national sovereignty. Projects involving large transnationals tend to take a top-down approach, increasing the risk of displacement, land-grabbing and local pollution. Without community involvement, there is no guarantee that such schemes will help with alleviating poverty, reducing unemployment or preserving a safe environment.

This has been a major failing of the Desertec initiative. Only a few actors from the South of the Mediterranean were involved in its development, and most of them represented public institutions and central authorities, not the local communities who would be affected by the project. The Desertec foundation did publish a set of criteria to ensure that large-scale solar projects in desert regions are implemented in an environmentally and socially responsible way.

However, in the absence of democratic control, transparency and citizen participation in decision making in the MENA region, those criteria will remain ink on paper. Another important question is: will these projects transfer the knowledge, expertise and designs of the renewable technology to the countries in this region? As an example, the glass troughs solar thermal collectors for North African CSP plants are all made in Germany , and the patents for the glass tube receivers are held by German companies.

Without fair access to such technologies, MENA countries will remain dependent on the West and transnationals for future renewable development. Solar energy, a new rent for authoritarian regimes?

To come back to the Arab uprisings, Desertec presented itself as a possible way out of the crisis , by bringing new opportunities to the region. This is baffling given that the project co-operated with corrupt elites and authoritarian regimes, some of which have since been overthrown, and others of which continue to oppress their populations.

Oil and gas have provided income for the Algerian regime for decades, and are used to buy social peace and maintain its grip on power. These contracts undoubtedly bolstered the regime as it exerted systematic violence across the country and at a time of international isolation. A renewable megaproject like Desertec that ties European economies to corrupt MENA governments would create exactly the same kind of problems. Rather than embracing such gargantuan projects, we should instead support decentralized small-scale projects that can be democratically managed and controlled by local communities that promote energy autonomy.

This article is from the March issue of New Internationalist. You can access the entire archive of over issues with a digital subscription.


Desertec: What Went Wrong?

With HVDC energy can also be transported in both directions. Because of the higher solar radiation in MENA, the production of energy, even with the included transmissions losses, is still advantageous over the production in South Europe. The HVDC link is the most powerful and longest transmission of its kind to be implemented anywhere in the world; and at the time of commissioning, transmitted 6, MW of power over a distance of nearly 2, kilometres. Siemens Energy has equipped the sending converter station Fulong for this link with ten DC converter transformers, including five rated at kV. It is one of three distinct physiographic provinces of the African massive physiographic division.


Clean and dispatchable power for everyone






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