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

Second, one of the biggest advantages of renewable energy is it reduces dependence on unstable nations and authoritarian oil regimes. But in this case, those benefits might not exist, or might not in the future.  North African nations aren’t exactly representative of stable democracies.  In fact, Germany’s largest solar company, SolarWorld, has said that North Africa is too risky a location. “Building solar power plants in politically unstable countries opens you to the same kind of dependency as the situation with oil,” said Frank Asbeck, the firm’s managing director.  Granted, as a producer of Photovoltaic-style solar power, SolarWorld has a vested interest in nay-saying solar-thermal power, but the issue is certainly one to consider.  Could trans-continental cables be easily cut or dismantled, posing a serious energy security risk?

Third, is mega-project power production from abroad the future of our renewable energy grid? Should billions be spent on energy production thousands of miles away, when it is increasingly cost effective to have domestically produced, locally-owned and operated solar, wind, and hydro-power production?

Finally, does Desertec smack too much of a new type of resource colonialism? Granted there is a difference: sunlight, unlike diamonds or gold, is infinite.  Indeed, can sunlight even be called a resource in the traditional sense?  Nonetheless, the projects will be built in the Sahara and would presumably be controlled and managed by international banks and corporations for the overwhelming benefit of European citizens and businesses.  Would the project create a deeper foothold for multinationals to control other aspects of North African development, such as desalination plants or water and mineral resources?

Gerhard Knies, chairman of Desertec’s supervisory board, has dismissed these concerns, saying that local needs would come first and local jobs and income would be created.  “It creates win-win situations for the participating sides,” he told the NYT Green Inc. columnist Tom Zeller.

But haven’t we heard this before?

Don’t get me wrong, parts of this seem like an exciting and ambitious project…on paper.  In general, I support concentrated solar power (CSP) and in my state of California several CSP plants have been operating for many years.  In fact, Greenpeace, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association, and the International Energy Agency produced a report hailing the enormous potential of CSP. It could meet 7 percent of the world’s power needs by 2030 and 25 percent by 2050.

So am I just being too cynical when I place a great renewable energy project in the context of the colonization and resource exploitation narrative of Africa?  Is Desertec part of a new “scramble for Africa.”

What do you think: Is the Desertec project a form of “solar imperialism” or one of the most ambitious green energy projects ever and an inspired solution to dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear energy?

For me the answer is: it depends. It depends on the details to answers to these and other questions.  Call me old-fashioned, but for me ecological sustainablility is bound up inextricably with issues of environmental justice and social-economic equity.

In an era of climate change, dependence on fossil fuels, and issues with nuclear power ranging from disposal of waste to fears of terrorist attacks, isn’t the Desertec proposal a creative and giant leap forward in meeting our energy needs and reducing carbon?

Photo Credits: Future Solar —kimberlyfaye (busy); Desertec Map–Erwin Boogert; Sahara Libre–Fliker–Salamancablog.com

  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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