Desertec: Solar energy system in North Africa and the Middle East

A unique industry initiative to develop a reliable, sustainable and climate-friendly energy supply from the deserts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is now taking shape. Today in Munich the articles of association for the DII GmbH (limited liability company) were signed by the group of founding members consisting of twelve companies and the DESERTEC Foundation.

The DII aims at accelerated implementation of the DESERTEC concept, as proposed by the DESERTEC Foundation. This work of the DII will entail a thorough analysis and the establishment of a framework for investments to supply the MENA region and Europe with power produced using solar and wind energy sources. The long-term goal is to satisfy a substantial part of the energy needs of the MENA countries and meet as much as 15% of Europe’s electricity demand by 2050.

The DII shareholder meeting today appointed Paul van Son as CEO of the DII. Over a period of about 30 years Mr. van Son has held various management posts in the European energy industry, including Managing Director of Deutsche Essent (Germany) and Econcern (Netherlands).

These companies have earned a reputation as developers of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. Mr. van Son is also Chairman of the European Federation of Energy Traders (EFET) and Chairman of the Energy4All Foundation which is active in Africa.

Mr. van Son: "We recognize and strongly support the DESERTEC vision as a pivotal part of the transition to a sustainable energy supply in the MENA countries and Europe. Now the time has come to turn this vision into reality. That implies intensive cooperation with many parties and cultures to create a sound basis for feasible investments into renewable energy technologies and interconnected grids.

The DII will primarily focus on the economic, technical and regulatory conditions that must be fulfilled for successful project implementation. Early reference projects will allow us to learn for further rollout plans by the DII and other parties."

Since the announcement in July, the DII has gained support from a wide variety of political and governmental institutions in the MENA region and Europe. As an example, the DII intends to collaborate closely with the Mediterranean Solar Plan (MSP), an initiative launched in 2008 by the French presidency of the Council of the European Union within the framework of the "Union for the Mediterranean".

The Mediterranean Solar Plan aims at the creation of a new balanced north-south relationship based on the promotion of sustainable energy projects. Both initiatives – the MSP as a political initiative and the DII as a private industry initiative – share similar goals and can therefore mutually support each other.

Shareholders of the DII are ABB, ABENGOA Solar, Cevital, DESERTEC Foundation, Deutsche Bank, E.ON, HSH Nordbank, MAN Solar Millennium, Munich Re, M+W Zander, RWE, SCHOTT Solar and Siemens. In the near future further companies from different countries will join the DII as shareholders or partners to ensure broad-based support from the EUMENA society. DII headquarters will be located in Munich.

All DII signatories agree on the need for efficient climate protection measures. Torsten Jeworrek, member of the board of Munich Re on behalf of the DII founding members: "The question is not whether we should do something, but how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and how this goal can be achieved in an intelligent manner, which results in a win-win situation for both the environment and the economy. With regard to the important UN climate summit in Copenhagen, this private sector initiative demonstrates how business potentials can be aligned with sustainability goals."

1. How does a concentrated solar power plant (CSP) work?

It works just like a coal steam power plant, with the difference that concentrated solar power is used for steam production, instead of coal. Large mirrors are positioned in such a way that they reflect and concentrate the sunlight onto a certain point much like capturing sunlight through a magnifying lens. A major advantage of this technology is that a part of the sun’s heat can be collected in heat storage tanks during the day and then run through steam circuits at night or specifically during peak hours, depending on the demand. With this technology, renewable and controlled energy can be provided according to the demand of the electricity grid.

A few facts and figures:

* The research by the German Aerospace Center shows that CSP plants in North Africa and the Middle East will be capable of producing up to 470,000 MW by the year 2050.
* The investment in the construction of a CSP plant with air-cooling which is capable of producing 250 MW currently amounts to approximately EUR 1 billion.
* In good locations, the solar plants can be operated at full capacity day and night on solar power alone thanks to heat storage tanks; the life-time of such a plant amounts to more than 40 years.
* There are no fuel costs; the oil or gas saved may remain underground or be sold at high prices on the world market (instead of combusting it under value at the location site).
* If saltwater from nearby coasts is used instead of drinking water for the cooling units, a 250 MW collector field may be used to operate a 200 MW turbine and 100,000 m3 of drinking water may be produced a day (over 4 million liters per hour) through the process of water desalination.
* By using level Fresnel reflecting mirrors, there is even the possibility of using the shade underneath collector fields for agricultural purposes.

2. What will solar power imports in 2020 really cost? The industry claims 16 c/kWh, DLR (German Aerospace Center) claims 6.5 c/kWh.

The costs depend on the location of the production and length of the transmission lines. Exact figures for specific projects have to be determined individually. The figures stated between 6.5 c/kWh (with steady cash value from 2000) by the DLR study and 16 c/kWh by the industrial association ESTELA SOLAR are mere estimates and do not necessarily contradict each other because they are referring to different segments of the world market. The industry calculates on delivering top-level and middle-load capacities in the range of 2000 to 4000 full-load hours of capacity per year. This is the current state of technology. Compensating and regulating energy generates higher revenues than base loaders. However, it costs more because of the low utilization of the turbines. In the TRANS-CSP study however, the DLR has concluded that a considerable proportion (5000 to 7000 capacity hours) will be allocated to solar energy at the base loaders. Thus, a substantial amount of carbon dioxide can be avoided. Base loaders generate less revenue and cost significantly less thanks to the turbines being utilized to a greater extent.

3. Isn’t the water demand for the cooling of the solar thermal power plants and cleaning of the mirrors a problem in arid locations?

In arid regions, conventional oil, gas or coal-fired steam cycles are usually air-cooled, and CSP plants can be operated in the same way. Solar-thermal power plants can be cooled by air, and there are cleaning procedures that require very little water. Depending on the location, vaporised cooling towers and seawater cooling may be used because they are more efficient than air-cooling techniques. If saltwater from nearby coasts is used instead of drinking water for the cooling units, a 250 MW collector field may be used to operate a 200 MW turbine and 100,000 m3 of drinking water may be produced a day (over four million litres per hour) through the process of water desalination.

4. Can the mirrors withstand the harsh desert conditions and sandstorms?

Solar-thermal power plants have been operating in the Mojave Desert for over 20 years and have withstood hailstorms, sandstorms and cyclones. In the event of impending danger, the mirrors, which are rotatable, can be positioned in such a manner that they are protected. Should the mirrors break nonetheless (0.4% per year), replacements are part of the operating costs. Signs of wear and tear on the mirrors in Kramer Junction have not been an issue for the last 20 years. Today, the power plants work more efficiently as operating and maintenance methods are now better than when operations began.

5. Aren’t the land areas required for the solar-thermal power plants enormous and an environmental threat?

According to a TRANS-CSP study, 17% of Europe’s energy requirements may be met by solar imports by 2050. This would involve 2,500 sq km of desert surface for the solar power plants and 3,500 sq km for the high-voltage direct-current transmission lines throughout the entire EU-MENA region (Europe – Middle East – North Africa). This total surface area of 6,000 sq km is as large as the Nasser reservoir near Aswan in Egypt. However, this reservoir provides only 3 Gigawatts (GW) of electric power, whereas the solar power plants would deliver 100 GW of electric power. Solar power is actually the most compact and efficient renewable energy source worldwide. The MENA region amounts to 12 million square kilometers, of which only 2,500 sq km (0.02% of the total area) will be required for the export power plants.

6. Aren’t the costs of power lines running over thousands of kilometers too high and their operation difficult to enforce?

Today, the electric losses incurred by high-voltage direct-current transmission lines (HVDC transmission lines) amount to 4-5% per 1,000-km of line, thereby increasing the price of the original energy source. These costs, plus capital and operating expenses for the power lines, account for around 1-2 c/kWh, depending on the length of the lines, in addition to the cost of production. However, the two- or threefold insolation in North Africa sufficiently makes up for the transportation costs to Europe. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has estimated in its studies that the costs of producing and transporting solar-thermal power between 2020-2030 will be lower than that of the conventional power production technologies in Europe which are subject to constantly rising fuel prices and environmental costs. Planning and approval times lie in the discretion of the countries involved and could be accelerated by appropriate regulations enforced by the EU.

What is important for public acceptance: High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission can be used both with overhead lines and with underground cables. Therefore, in contrast to AC technology, HVDC provides the possibility to use underground cables for the transmission of electrical energy even over long distances. The technical design and economic assessment of necessary grid infrastructure for power transmission to Europe is an essential part of the roll-out plan to be worked out under the DII. Furthermore, it is easier to communicate the need for the network to the general public should solar energy be used, instead of energy from coal or nuclear sources. The case is similar to that of highways: Of course, such a network is an environmental hazard that can only be justified through the substantial advantages and benefits for the environment which it creates. This is the case for DESERTEC.

7. Wouldn’t the transportation of desert energy be better using hydrogen?

In principle, hydrogen as an energy carrier has an advantage over electricity. However, the conversion of solar energy into hydrogen, and the re-conversion of hydrogen into electricity for the supply network would involve a loss of 50% of the original energy used. With HVDC transmission, only 10-15 % of this energy is lost. There would also be pumping losses when transporting the hydrogen gas to Europe. Also, hydrogen would have to be generated from water which is rare in the desert. Therefore, it is more sensible to transport solar energy via HVDC transmission involving lower loss rates to Europe, where hydrogen can be generated.

8. Aren’t CO2 certificates for solar energy generated in MENA simpler and more sensible to enforce than power lines for remote transmission?

By 2050, the energy demand in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) will probably be approximately the same as that of Europe due to their rapidly increasing personal consumption. One can strengthen the expansion of renewable energy for personal consumption in MENA through certificate trading if necessary, but this cannot replace the necessary solar power imports to Europe. Climate change can only be stopped with the actual physical avoidance of CO2 emissions. We need good controllable solar energy for MENA and Europe.

9. Will solar power imports actually be needed when electric cars may solve the solar power storage problem in the future?

Electric cars are primarily additional electricity consumers for which further sustainable sources of energy have to be harnessed. They increase the demand for domestic sources and solar power imports, and represent an important option for electric load management, in addition to being important for the transportation sector. However, they cannot fulfill the higher demands of the storage of electricity, which would mean that solar imports would be dispensed with. Exporting solar power plants do not have to save for seasonal shortages because there is a relatively uniform supply of solar power throughout the year in North Africa and the Middle East.

10. Wind energy is currently much cheaper than solar energy. Doesn’t it make more sense to import wind energy from the Sahara?

The import of electricity from wind power or photovoltaic energy is not excluded, but these sources of energy involve some significant disadvantages compared to solar-thermal power plants. There are indeed large wind energy potentials in the Sahara, particularly along the Atlantic coast and the Red Sea, which are economical at the same time. However, wind energy is not controllable according to demand and is therefore less valuable than solar energy. Wind energy potential is not nearly as large as solar energy potentials and is, as such, used widely as a cheap source of energy for local energy requirements in MENA. Exporting wind energy, which is fluctuating in nature, in large quantities to a region that has too few controllable energy sources at its disposal would not be welcomed by European energy consumers and providers. Less of the HVDC transmission capacity would be utilized (approximately 50% of their full capacity) and their operation would hence become more expensive. The potential of seasonal balance effects which can be attained would not nearly be as large as that of the systematic import of controllable energy from solar-thermal power plants. The same can be said of photovoltaic energy as an exportable power source: Only 25% of the power line capacity would be utilized. Together with European domestic sources, solar-thermal power plants can deliver the controlled energy required as well as the basic supply, thereby dramatically increasing the utilization of the HVDC transmission lines. The TRANS-CSP scenario describes power line utilization at an initial 60% in 2020, rising to 80% by 2050.


1. Wouldn’t Europe be making its energy supply dependent on foreign sources and thus expose itself to attacks?

It makes sense for Europe to buy solar energy from North Africa and the Middle East because it can be produced more cheaply there and solar-thermal power plants are able to supply electricity reliably, thus offering advantages over the renewable sources in Europe which are mostly fluctuating in nature; they also efficiently complement the existing forms. Should energy prices be forced to rise due to, say, delivery interruptions, these two market advantages would be lost as this would be the case with European customers in the medium term. The big difference with regard to the dependency on fossil fuels lies here: Renewable power can be produced just as well in Europe, albeit at higher costs and requiring more input. It is hence in the interest of the power-exporting countries to offer an economical and reliable product; otherwise the demand would decrease and a drop in investments, export revenues and employment could be expected. In this sense, an energy cartel much like the model of OPEC tends to be self-destructive and makes little sense. Solar power that is not delivered is thus lost and may not be sold later at a higher price as with oil or gas.

The TRANS-CSP scenario illustrates the following picture for the power production mix of Europe for the year 2050: 65% own renewable energies, 17% solar power imports and 18% fossil backup and top-loaded power plants. The failure of power plants and pipelines can be easily compensated for until their repair or a political solution using stand-by gas power plants. There will not be one large transmission line or one big solar-thermal power plant, but hundreds of power plants in a net of renewable energy sources located on several continents. Both state and small or major private investors can / should / want to participate in the power plants and power lines. The financing of these power lines could take advantage of, for example, pension funds which are looking for secure, long-term investment opportunities that are sustainable and ensure peace. Pension funds, in particular, are interested in a form of energy supply which functions economically since their investments in Europe require it as well. 

Solar energy is practically unlimited and, through a consolidated utilization of solar technologies, it becomes more favorable. This means that there are no conflicts and competition despite growing demand for resources which are limited both regionally and quantitatively as is the case with oil, gas or uranium. Instead, additional power plants and lines can simply be constructed. The possibility of charging batteries or of producing hydrogen economically with clean power could also make the transport sector less dependent on fossil fuels. Furthermore, sustainably produced biomass could be used more sensibly in the transport sector than for the production of electricity.

As can be seen in Europe, mutual networks and interconnecting ensures peace and cohesion amongst countries. By the creation of education and employment opportunities as well as better general living conditions, DESERTEC is an ideal anti-terror program.

2. With solar energy imports from Arabian countries, wouldn’t we simply be replacing dependencies such as the dependency on natural gas from the Ukraine with new, possibly more critical dependencies?

No, because we also expand the number of suppliers, thereby reducing the risk of supply failure. After all, the number of stand-by options increase with every new trade connection.

3. Isn’t it highly dangerous to depend on politically instable countries in MENA?

It is more likely that parties which are not mutually dependent become involved in conflicts with one another than parties which are interdependent on one another. By 2050, the South Mediterranean region will have roughly the same economic power and population as Europe and hence similar energy requirements. Isolating this region would be much more dangerous for Europe than a joint effort towards a sustainable energy supply system. On a global scale, there will be a change of paradigm in terms of political security, which will replace the conflicts increasing worldwide over limited resources with a joint international effort to harness renewable resources.

4. If the power lines or power plants become the target of terrorist attacks, could Europe’s power supply suddenly be immobilized?

According to the TRANS-CSP study by the DLR, imported solar energy from the entire MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) could cover approximately 17% of Europe’s energy requirements by 2050. The future energy mix is – much like today – determined at 125% of the top load, including 25% reserve capacity for emergencies. Hence, there would be enough energy available even if all the solar power plants and high-voltage direct-current transmission lines (HVDC lines) fail simultaneously – which is a highly unlikely event in itself. However, this reserve energy would stem substantially from stored fossil fuels and reserve power plants. A strong EU-MENA association with HVDC transmission lines could continue to supply energy during events of this kind, unlike the alternating-current network of today. 

5. Aren’t the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) too unstable for long-term investments?

In several states of the MENA region, the domestic political stability is endangered by political stagnation. Nevertheless, a number of countries are making significant improvements in terms of domestic and foreign political stability. The DESERTEC Foundation tries to support the nations in the region in this process of development by helping to establish an advanced economy which is based on technology, and create employment opportunities in the industrial sector. The plans put forward by DESERTEC would contribute towards this stabilization through development in the national economies and societies described.

Despite possible security concerns, high international investments in the oil sector are still made in these countries. The MENA countries could also participate in the investments in solar and wind energy plants and hence develop a reinforced interest to keep these plants in operation.


1. Is Europe exploiting Africa again? How would the MENA region benefit from this?

* We are currently exploiting the region of gas and oil. However, solar energy is practically boundless and harnessing it may contribute to the technological development of the region.
* By 2050, MENA will have the same power and drinking water requirements as Europe, and will urgently need renewable energy production to meet these needs. This necessity was the starting point of the ‘MED-CSP’, ‘TRANS-CSP’ and `AQUA-CSP´ studies.
* Fossil fuels may be saved in MENA’s (subsidized) power supply, and lucrative sales on the world market are possible. In addition, revenues from the export of electricity are created by utilizing unused renewable energy potentials.
* The effects of climate change caused by Europe will be felt first in the MENA region. Thus, it is only fair if Europe promotes the introduction of renewable energies in MENA. Transfer of technology as well as educational and academic programs are explicitly promoted within the framework of the Union for the Mediterranean.
* Employment is created in MENA for engineers who usually tend to emigrate, as well as jobs particularly in the construction of collectors. This leads to income and the development of the middle class.
* It is left to the sovereignty of the producing countries as to whether they use the clean energy to meet their own demands first and finance this energy supply through the profits that they earn from selling or dispensing with the fuels that are thus saved, or sell the energy profitably to Europe and wait until the relevant technology becomes cheaper. In the light of the enormous potential that solar energy entails, these countries could take advantage of both possibilities at the same time.

2. Why should Arabian countries, which, in some cases, have gigantic gas and oil reserves at their disposal, be interested in solar power exports?

If one uses oil and gas oneself, it cannot be sold. When the oil price hit 150 dollars per barrel in the summer of 2008, it was double the costs of energy from a concentrating solar collection field. Gas and oil-producing countries can hence spare their valuable sources of fossil energy. Climate protection focuses primarily on avoiding the combustion of fossil energy sources. This naturally means reducing global consumption as well as exploiting and exporting coal, oil and gas. Solar power exports open a real economic alternative for many producing and exporting countries of oil, gas and coal. Increasing drinking water shortages in North Africa, Southwest Asia and worldwide will require enormous additional energy supplies for sea water desalination in the medium term. These supplies of energy can only be supplied by solar-thermal power plants in a safe, economical and environmentally friendly manner.

3. The concept only includes North Africa. What about the rest of the world?

* For a cooperation and integration into the European power network, North Africa and the Middle East come to mind first because of the proximity rather than South/Central Africa.
* Renewable sources of energy in general and solar-thermal power plants in particular are just as suitable for the rest of Africa which can also profit from the cost reductions in the north.
* We are also promoting the DESERTEC Concept in China, Australia, America, and India for the realization of “Clean power from deserts,” but our means are limited.
* Therefore, we are building regional DESERTEC networks worldwide which can profit from our know-how and research.

4. Does it make sense if Europe promotes the development and expansion of renewable energy sources in MENA?

An investment subsidy for renewable energy sources amounting to less than EUR 10 billion should be considered as an investment in a safe and inexhaustible energy source of the future. In terms of the atmosphere and climate protection, it does not matter whether the CO2 emissions arise or are avoided in Europe or the MENA region. In the end, the speed of the CO2 reduction is the decisive factor.

There is an abundance of solar energy in the deserts and wind energy in the western part of North Africa. This could be used not only to meet the energy and desalinated water requirements of these countries, but a part of the energy needs of Europe could also be covered by imported clean power. In addition to reducing future conflicts over water and energy resources, many further advantages will also be created for the citizens of all participating countries.

* Avoiding human and financial losses through environmental catastrophes which are triggered when fossil and atomic fuels continue to be combusted to harness energy.
* Increasing the value of desert and coastal regions by transforming them into inexhaustible sources of power and water.
* Development of an economy which is based on know-how and technology in the MENA region, thus allowing these countries to overcome under-development and poverty on their own on a medium and long-term basis.
* An enormous order volume for the companies involved in the construction of the solar-thermal power plants, wind parks and HVDC transmission lines as well as hundreds of thousands of jobs in the industry.
* Competitive energy can be produced in a few years due to technical improvements and falling costs in mass production of solar-thermal power plants, wind farms and HVDC transmission lines.
* The possibility of economically producing hydrogen or charging batteries with clean energy would decrease the dependency of the transport sector on diminishing fossil fuels in the long term. In addition, the need for biomass in power production would decrease, and hence make its consolidated use in the transportation sector possible.
* Role-model function for other industrial states such as the USA, India, Australia and China.