Desertec Advances: Massive Solar Power Project No Longer a Mirage?

It’s not diamonds.  Nor is it gold.  But it might be just as lucrative. European firms this time have their eyes on North African deserts as the location of a giant network of solar thermal plants to provide low-carbon energy for Europe.


It has been compared to the challenge of putting a man on the moon.  The complex and ambitious renewable energy project called Desertec might be finally getting off the brainstorming page and set into motion, as key players and funders met today in Munich to discuss the project.  Twelve companies signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which establishes the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative (DII) and states their commitment to bring the massive project to life.

“Among the DII’s main goals are the drafting of concrete business plans and associated financing concepts, and the initiating of industrial preparations for building a large number of networked solar thermal power plants distributed throughout the MENA region. The aim is to produce sufficient power to meet around 15% of Europe’s electricity requirements and a substantial portion of the power needs of the producer countries.”

As Susan Kraemer reported last week on CleanTechnica: “Bringing Desertec to life would utterly change the face of solar energy generation for the whole planet.”

Many people are excited.  If built, it would be the largest concentrated solar power project (CSP) ever. It is an estimated  €400 ($555) billion project which would be implemented over several decades.  In the end it could provide 15% of Europe’s energy.

The plan is to build and link a series of giant solar-thermal plants in the North African desert.  Solar thermal captures sunlight with hundreds of mirrors which are used to focus the energy to heat water that then turns steam turbines.   The power generated would then be carried across the Mediterranean Sea via an infrastructure of high-voltage transmission lines.  The power generated would be carried by a €45bn electricity super-grid covering Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

So far the project has the backing of some key European politicians and heavyweights, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, Greenpeace Germany, and the Club of Rome.  Many big name firms are involved, including Siemens, Deutsche Bank, and energy giants RWE and E.ON.  The latest enthusiast is the German insurance company Munich Re.  Because of increased claims due to climate-change-related damage, the company is eager to promote low-carbon power.

It certainly is good news that a giant solar project could meet so much of Europe’s energy needs. Yet at the same time the proposal raises a number of issues.

In the midst of the excitement, it might be appropriate to insert a few questions, as a matter of debate, not dogma.  In general I think it is a good habit to pay attention whenever a group of powerful banks, corporations, and think-tanks get together to discuss something, especially something so far-reaching.

First, I haven’t heard a lot about how the project would help African energy needs or communities, beyond vague references to ‘greater energy security’ and ‘growth and development opportunities’ for producer countries.  What I have seen most are references to the 240,000 new green jobs it will create in Germany alone, the $2 trillion in profits investors hope to make over the next few decades, and the part about meeting 15% of Europe’s energy needs.  What will be the balance struck between investor profit, European job creation, and producer country and community benefits?

  1. Cyndy Abbott

    This is a very thought provoking article. I would have to take the stance on the side of “a new political scramble for Africa.” In my mind, for a project to be ecologicaly sustainable, one has to add local to the equation. On a smaller scale, I equate this with the thousands of wind turbines going up in the smaller communities, only to be channeled half way across the country, not even powering the very communities they are built in. To tout a project that will be over 20 years in the building on one continent to be transported to another continent and in the end maybe providing only 15% of said recipients energy is insane. Show me a locally built solar project that can be accomplished in 3 years or less and provide 50-75% of said local communities energy needs. That will be ecological sustainable progress.

  2. russ

    I understand the jihadis are all for it – great for target practice! Not to mention lots of foreigners for kidnapping.

    There will be lots of talk, meetings at 5 star hotels, NGO’s will be promised money, praise for the visionaries and then it will all be forgotten – slowly will it all settle into the dunes.

  3. ray4a

    Something needs to take us off of fossil fuel’s. Almost anything will be better than what we have now.
    We need to develop another method of generating electricity other than steam and turbins. We need a breakthrough that by-passes patent law’s and grant the patent for production without all the lawyers making all the money. That is the bottleneck right now, there are systems that are not being allowed to go forward because of stringent patent policy’s
    We should start there.

  4. Jezreel Magbanua

    I love solar thermal power! I would like to work in one. I am currently working in coal fired cogeneration plant. But I think solar thermal is a lot more interesting and exciting.
    I wonder how they store power for nighttime use.

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