- Untill now laughed upon as an environmentalist wet dream, Germany's main power companies now invest real money in a project that could change the face of the Sahara desert. A giant solar energy project in the desert is to provide Europe with 15% of its electricity needs.
This time, it is for real. Twelve major companies in the electricity and finance sectors gathered in Munich to create the foundation "Desertec Industrial Initiative." The euro 400 billion initiative is to secure giant solar energy projects in North Africa.
The consortium includes Germany's most known giant companies, such as Deutsche Bank and Siemens and the country's leading energy companies E.on and RWE. Also Swiss-Swedish ABB is on the team. The German government, eager to become less dependent on Russian gas, has already expressed its support to the initiative.
While Desertec was founded already in 2007, this weekend's development means that the long-known idea finally has been found as realistic by Europe's main companies, now willing to invest in the initiative.
And the initiative has not been scaled down after passing through the capital reality check. Indeed, Desertec aims at starting its first energy production already in 2015. By 2050, some euro 400 billion are to be invested, and by that time Desertec is to provide Europe with some 15 percent of its energy needs.
Saharan solar power thus is seen as the most realistic large-scale energy production that is environmentally friendly and can substitute fossil fuels during the next decades. In addition to meeting environmental demands, it also is to contribute to the economic development of Europe's next door neighbours in North Africa.
Paul van Son, the Dutch CEO of the new consortium, assures that North African states also will get their share of economic and power gains from the giant project. African consumer were to get their fair share of power supply and infrastructure, Mr van Son emphasised. But the relative low population density in North Africa would still give a great power surplus for Europe, Desertec holds.
No decisions have been made yet on where the focal point of solar energy production would be. Plans are for landing power in South Spain, meaning it needs to pass from Morocco over the Straight of Gibraltar. But the vague maps of production indicate that Algeria's, Mauritania's and Mali's vast deserts may become key production sites. Other landing sites could be via South Italy - including Libyan and Egyptian production sites - and Greece.
Technology now was ready to use, the consortium holds. It plans to use improved concentrated solar power technology, which uses the sun to heat water to very high temperatures, fuelling power steam turbines to generate electricity. Giant mirrors are to concentrate solar rays to heat the water. The problem of energy loss on long transport ways to Europe was to be solved by newly developed hi-tech cables that suffer little conductive loss of power.
Desertec's plans have generally been welcomed by the public, politicians and state leaders as an innovative way to secure environmentally sustainable energy for Europe. Several African governments already had indicated their interest is providing production sites, according to Desertec.
Only some development NGOs have warned against a "new solar colonialism." Additionally, some German market analysts during the weekend doubted the giant project could ever be realised. CEO van Son today answered critics saying the Sahara was "a paradise" for solar energy harvesting.
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