An ambitious multinational project to tap into the solar energy potential of North African and Middle Eastern deserts is facing a strategic tug of war between its commercial and non-profit backers following a split between the two groups.
Both factions insist that the Desertec project will succeed in building a network of renewable energy power plants. But the rift in early July (see infobox for details) has pitted the commercial dream of meeting European energy demand from North Africa against the need to achieve social and political stability in the region.
The idea is grand: research by Swiss-Swedish concern ABB, partner of Desertec Industrial Initiative, has shown that the world’s desert regions collect enough energy in six hours to more than meet the entire annual energy needs of the planet’s population.
Desertec, a multi-billion dollar initiative, is expected to take around 40 years to turn the dream of harnessing the desert’s energy producing capabilities into reality.
But it has faced pressure from a number of external forces since its inception in 2009, not least the economic downturn that has afflicted southern European countries and the Arab Spring uprisings that are still being felt across North Africa.
The non-profit Desertec Foundation parted company with the 19 business partners of the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) in early July, saying it was uncomfortable with all of the commercial aims of the firms involved.
Days later, Dii Managing Director Aglaia Wieland, a leading proponent of exporting renewable energies to Europe, was ousted to give CEO Paul von Sonn sole leadership of the industrial consortium.
Von Sonn had weeks earlier been quoted by the EurActiv.com website as playing down the European connection to the desert initiative.
“Four years ago Desertec was all about bringing energy from North Africa. We have abandoned that one dimensional thinking,” van Son told EurActiv.com.
Rolf Wüstenhagen, head of the Institute for Economy and the Environment at the University of St Gallen, argues that social and political upheavals have altered the Desertec game plan.
“Desertec initially started as an ambitious, visionary idea of supplying European electricity needs from sun-soaked deserts,” Wüstenhagen told swissinfo.ch. “The Arab Spring revolution led to adjustments in policy. It was recognised that Desertec could be used by Europe as a foreign policy instrument to stabilise the region as oil supplies run out.”
Both the non-profit Desertec Foundation, which has strong backing from the German government, and the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) of multinational companies insist that although they have parted ways, they can still work together on the grand architecture of the initiative despite having differences in individual goals.
This is just as well because the commercial, NGO and political worlds need each other to make the project work, according to Wüstenhagen.
“It won’t fly on purely commercial grounds but it does need a good business case to succeed,” he said. “The Foundation’s vision extends to 2050, but publically listed companies tend not to look that far into the future for a return on their investments.”
The green energy potential of desert regions has attracted a great deal of research and investment that aims to find the key of unlocking the energy harvest and using it to meet future needs.
In addition to Desertec, Swiss companies and researchers are also involved in other eco projects in desert areas.
These include the Solar islands project, based in Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates, that seeks to harness solar energy with large floating "islands" of solar mirrors that heat water in pipes to make steam and electricity.
Abu Dhabi’s futuristic green city project known as Masdar, that aims to house 50,000 people and provide energy from numerous renewable sources, also has Swiss backing.
Show goes on
Swiss-Swedish concern ABB, a member of Dii, insisted that the “visionary, long-term” Desertec initiative was still very much on track despite the “short-term political volatility” of the Arab Spring or the split with its non-profit partners.
“We regret the withdrawal of the Desertec Foundation, but we do not see this weakening the initiative,” Jochen Kreusel, head of ABB’s Smart Grids initiative, told swissinfo.ch. “Our position on the project has not changed. We are very satisfied with the results that have been achieved so far.”
“We strongly believe that an integrated EU-MENA [Middle East and North Africa] market for renewable energies is a key element for reaching Europe's energy targets for 2050 and for a sustainable supply with electricity in the whole region.”
Greenpeace, that has always supported the initiative, also believes the project can survive the current problems, but is less sure now about the dream of linking up with Europe’s power grids.
“The showpiece industrial intention of supplying Europe with electrical power from North Africa now faces a setback, but that does not mean that the whole concept cannot prove successful,” Andree Böhling, expert for renewable energies at Greenpeace Germany, told swissinfo.ch.
No “magic” technology
One area for concern for Böhling was the reported divisions among the multinational ranks of industry backers.
“One group wants to explore and analyse the clean energy possibilities in the region with the genuine interests of the local population in mind,” he said. “Another group appears to be using environmental concerns as a fig leaf while a third section wants to get as many commercial projects out into the market as quickly as possible.”
In June, Dii presented its first concrete action plan, called “Getting Started”, that forecast that renewables would account for up to 55 per cent of energy production in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe by 2050.
The first objective of the project is to formulate the ideal technical, economic and political conditions to turn the region’s deserts into power producing centres. ABB’s technical expertise in transporting electricity over long distances with minimal losses of power is a crucial part of the plan.
“The goals are achievable, they do not need new magic technologies to overcome technical problems,” Wüstenhagen told swissinfo.ch.