On paper, it sounded like a good idea: harvest the abundant solar and wind resources found in sparsely populated desert areas, turn it into electricity and pipe it to more populated parts of the world.
In Europe the Desertec concept, as it was dubbed when it was officially launched in 2009, gained the strongest traction, spawning the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), a consortium of companies working towards realising the vision in Europe and North Africa. The group’s plans were grand: develop mega-scale PV, CSP and wind plants in the desert countries of Middle East and North African (MENA), transport it to Europe via a new high voltage DC grid network and supply up to 15% of Europe’s electricity by 2050.
But now, three years on, a string of recent events has suggested the project is not going quite to plan.
The first signs of trouble came in October and early November, when within a few weeks of each other, the German electronics giants Siemens and Bosch announced their decision to quit the scheme.
Then the project suffered a further indignity, when the Spanish government failed to attend the signing of an agreement to build what was described as a ‘reference’ or pilot project for Desertec in Morocco, citing difficulties with securing subsidies for the scheme.
The events have given Desertec’s critics plentiful ammunition to claim the project, which, with its costs and complexities they believe was flawed from the start, is now in some sort of crisis.
“I can’t comment on the Siemens and Bosch cases, but if you’d ask me three years ago I would probably have predicted something like that happening – that enthusiastic participants who initially thought it was a great idea would fall by the wayside once they were actually confronted with the realities of this proposition,” says Peter Droege, President of Eurosolar, the European Association for Renewable Energy.
“What we’re seeing now is a shakedown [as] a utopian notion enters into the reality of how energy systems really work.”
The backers of the project deny recent events indicate a deeper problem with the venture, pointing instead to wider difficulties in the global solar industry.
“It is true there has been some bad publicity recently because Bosch and Siemens have pulled out. This is less a reflection on the idea of desert power than on the solar industry at the moment. Competition is fierce and some companies are focusing their efforts elsewhere,” says Thiemo Gropp, Director of the Desertec Foundation, the international body behind the original Desertec vision.
Indeed Gropp points to notable progress since Desertec’s launch in 2009, including the Moroccan pilot project, which, despite the Spanish government no-show, is still going ahead.
In Tunisia, meanwhile, the 2GW TuNur CSP project, the first officially endorsed project by the Desertec Foundation, is moving forward. Financing agreements are in place and the Tunisian government is considering a law to allow foreign companies to produce electricity in the country and export it. Both projects could begin exporting power to Europe by 2016.
Gropp also points out that as it will ultimately be the private sector developing projects under the Desertec initiative, much of the work since 2009 to implement the vision has been behind the scenes. He highlights a swathe of R&D, capacity-building and project evaluation initiatives initiated by Desertec in European and MENA countries. In addition the foundation has started forging links with Asian countries to begin rolling the Desertec concept out in other regions of the world.
“The Dii and Desertec Foundation have been founded to push forward the creation of the necessary political framework conditions for the realisation of Desertec and not to build power plants themselves. So most of the projects under our banner are not power plants,” Gropp says.
A Dii spokesman adds: "There is no crisis and no real impact [from Siemens and Bosch leaving]. Dii has currently partners from 57 companies and scientific institutions from 16 different countries. And there are currently some more companies interested to join us."
And it seems confidence in the future of Desertec is still robust among the remaining members of the Dii group.
A source in one of the consortium companies contacted by PV-Tech said it was a “pity” that Siemens had decided to leave the project: “We’re sorry they left because they had knowledge we could use.”
But the source insists that the collective knowledge and expertise within the remaining group will be sufficient to steer the project in the right direction. And with Siemens and others leaving the project, now is a “good opportunity” for the group to attract interest from elsewhere: “There are other companies from China and the US that are interested and think they can add to their expertise [by getting involved in Desertec] and then use it in their own countries.”
While Desertec is perhaps not quite in a state of crisis, some are questioning for how much longer this will be the case - or indeed whether, in an era when electricity provision is becoming an increasingly nationalistic concern, it offers the right model for Europe.
“It’s an idea that doesn’t really match the technological, social and economic realities of renewable energy,” says Droege.
Droege’s colleague Axel Berg, head of the German section at Eurosolar, explains that with European countries increasingly aware of the economic possibilities of a homespun renewable energy industry, the Desertec model of importing electricity generated in large-scale plants in potentially unstable countries looks dated.
“We’re coming into a new phase where we need to decide whether we still want our old centralised energy productions systems – big coal plants or big nuclear plants – or do we use the chance to supply the population at a regional and decentralised [level]. If you organise electricity locally and reach a level of self-sufficiency where you don’t have to import energy, then you have a lot of advantages.”
“We could transform the current energy input model, that’s costly and depends on wide, strong grid networks, to a local supply system based on the energy conditions of the particular region you’re talking about,” adds Droege. “So it’s unnecessary to harvest wind on a mega scale and ship it down to southern Europe or solar energy on a mega scale in the south and ship it north. This idea comes from a time where we all thought resources were limited; Desertec has just transposed this pattern on to these different energy systems.”
Observers point out that there are numerous other question marks over Desertec: whether it is overly exploitative of developing countries that have their own electricity needs but may not be able to take advantage of energy being produced under Desertec projects because of inadequate grid infrastructure; whether it is sensible to pin reliance for a large chunk of Europe’s future energy supply on countries with recent histories of political instability; or whether transmission technologies are sufficiently advanced to allow for the kind of pan-European DC grid envisaged by the project’s progenitors.
Droege predicts that because of its many political, technological and financial complexities, Desertec’s original vision will be “unrecognisably whittled down” to a series of bilateral energy deals between individual MENA and European countries. “Perhaps this bilateral approach would be sensible – just like you have DC cables running between Denmark and Holland, for example. But I just can’t see a continental network being rolled out; it’s completely inconceivable,” he says.
For Desertec’s backers, though, the project remains feasible, and even ahead of schedule, with the first energy exports to Europe now slated for 2016, rather than 2020, as was originally forecast. They are holding fast to the original vision and believe it could eventually supply two thirds of the MENA region’s electricity needs while leaving enough to export, and meeting even as much as 20% of Europe’s needs.
"An integrated power system for EUMENA is not just technically feasible but will also be more economical than if North Africa, the Middle East and Europe were to rely on separate systems," says a spokesman for Dii. "The deserts of North Africa and the Middle East will play a key role as locations for generating affordable and sustainable solar and wind power; similarly, the excellent off-shore wind sites in Northern Europe will also make a central contribution. Such a collaboration will create winners on all sides. Europe will benefit from cheaper, cleaner electricity that will facilitate the transition to a renewables-based power system."
For that vision to come even close to being realised, few are in doubt that it will require a huge effort by a lot of people over a long period of time. As says Klaus Triechel, spokesman for transmission technology company ABB, one of the Dii consortium: “This won’t happen overnight. It’s a big mission for many generations of people. But we believe in the concept. It’s viable. We have no intent to give up.”
So for the time being then, Desertec looks to have the confidence of its backers and is forging ahead with plans. But the jury is still out on the extent its grand vision will ever become reality.
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