Desertec solar and wind power project on track

They wanted to be at the global forefront of renewable energies – unlike German carmakers, criticized today for having been asleep at the wheel on the development of electric vehicles.

A lot has happened in the first year of the ambitious project, which is underpinned by detailed research from the German Aerospace Centre (DLR).

The governments of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have since joined. Libya, Egypt and Jordan have expressed keen interest.

Klaus Toepfer, formerly executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme and earlier Germany’s environment minister, has become a Desertec advisor on strategic issues. Rainer Bruederle, Germany’s minister of economics and technology, has promised support.

Meanwhile, the groundbreaking for Desertec’s first pilot concentrating solar power or solar- thermal power plant is fast approaching. To be located in the desert of central Morocco, the concentrating solar power plant will be designed to deliver 250 megawatts of power.

This is more than the solar plant with the largest capacity at present, in California’s Mojave Desert.

"We have chosen an area in Morocco where insolation (solar radiation) is good and there’s not too much dust in the air. The site isn’t far from a power grid. Water for cooling and for cleaning the mirrors is also on hand," said Dii CEO Paul van Son, a Dutch national.

It was a hot July day and Van Son was about to pay his first call on the Egyptian government. His purpose – the same as during talks with politicians from Berlin, Rabat, Algiers or Tunis – was to create a stable political framework in which companies and governments can make large-scale investments in renewable energies as soon as possible.

At the same time, Van Son was pressing ahead with plans for the first pilot plants in order to prove that Desertec was not only a nice-sounding idea but feasible as well.

A lack of capital, he said, will not be a serious problem. "The Desertec Initiative can either found a company and seek investors, or put out the individual projects for tender," he remarked.

Initially, Desertec envisions meeting a portion of North African countries’ energy needs with wind energy and solar-power plants. Subsidies will be required in the beginning because production costs for electricity from concentrating solar power plants, in particular, are still much higher than those for electricity generated by burning fossil fuels.

The development of wind power has shown, however, that when research and utilization are expanded, costs can fall faster than pessimists expect.

In a second stage, Desertec plans to transmit electricity across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe by means of high-voltage direct current power lines.

An alternative is seen for Egypt, which has no such lines. It could keep all of its desert electricity and export natural gas to Europe instead.

Van Son, who runs Desertec from an office in Munich, is trying to remain down-to-earth despite the soaring enthusiasm that greets him everywhere. He knows that the estimated investment cost of 400 billion euros (513 billion dollars) is nothing but a number.

"You can’t sell the bear’s skin until you have caught the bear," said Van Son, reciting a well-known proverb, as he and German Development Minister Dirk Niebel bumped along in a bus through the Egyptian desert.

The landscape was barren and the air indescribably hot. A warm wind blew relentlessly over the hard-baked sand – just the kind of climate that the Desertec boss likes.

What he does not like is the allegation that Desertec is an example of "modern energy colonialism."

He often points out that besides the German founding members – among them the engineering company Siemens, the utility RWE and Deutsche Bank – Desertec now includes Nareva Holding of Morocco and the Algerian concern Cevital.

No opposition is likely from international environmental protection organizations, which tend to look askance at dams and other big energy projects in developing countries.

Greenpeace has even praised Desertec as a "model" and expressed the hope that it would accelerate the advance of renewable energies.

Van Son does not know whether he will live to see Desertec’s vision realized. "In 40 years I’ll be 96 years old. I have got no idea if I’ll make it that long," he said. But he is already old enough to know that visions of the future are never set in stone.

"They said in 1970 that the world was going nuclear, which hasn’t happened," he noted. "This shows it’s simply not possible to predict precisely how things will develop over a period of 40 years."