HAMBURG, Germany -- Twenty-five years after Gerhard Knies conceived of powering Europe with the Sahara Desert's sun, the North Africa Solar project has grown into something considerably more than a mere mirage, but it's still less than a reality.
Part of the plan is to erect a network of solar plants that generate electricity by concentrating the heat from sunlight to make electricity, generating 100 gigawatts or the equivalent of 100 large nuclear power plants. Another part is to develop a grid of high-voltage transmission lines that can carry the power from Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria to power-hungry markets in Europe.
The overall plan has already attracted billions of dollars in investments from blue-chip German companies and the World Bank as well as palpable excitement among supporters. They see it as a way to fight climate change, help Europe meet its renewable energy targets and create badly needed jobs in troubled Middle Eastern countries.
But the estimated €400 billion ($566 billion), 40-year endeavor also has invited critics who question whether the region is politically stable enough for such development, and whether it's wise to create a new dependence on another source of energy from the Middle East. Others doubt the project will bring lasting benefits to North Africa. They see it as a repeat of resource exploitation -- albeit "green" exploitation -- on the African continent.
Knies is now the energetic and at times defiant chairman of the board of trustees of the Desertec Foundation, which is pushing the plan. He is eager to implement the solar vision he first developed in the wake of the horrific Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Then a particle physicist at Hamburg's Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), Knies said the 1986 disaster prompted him to calculate how much energy the sun can deliver to the world.
"I thought to myself, 'Are we really so stupid that we put such things in our world that we cannot control? Just for some little comfort?'" he said.
From Chernobyl to Fukushima to Desertec?
Sitting in a tent drinking coffee at DESY during a recent conference on North Africa's clean energy prospects, Knies argued that climate change and the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan -- which turned countries like his native Germany away from nuclear as a low-carbon option -- are lending new urgency to the current, more elaborate version of the plan. He roundly rejected any challenges to Desertec's motives or ability to help North Africa, arguing that criticisms of the solar project are unfounded.
"This is not a European invention," Knies said, noting that the solar initiative was designed by 15 European scientists and 25 scientists from the Middle East and North Africa.
"The Desertec project came from the region ... and it will be to the benefit of these countries," he said. Beyond the jobs and economic development he sees for troubled countries like Egypt and Tunisia, Knies argued that Europe and the Middle East have "a common goal. We do not want a climate that is out of control."
If the Desertec plan works, it could provide 15 percent of Europe's electricity needs and help the continent achieve its target of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. Backers believe North Africa is one of the best places in the world for concentrated solar power (CSP), largely because of vast tracts of unused land that are in close proximity to road networks and transmission grids. With solar resources in North Africa about 20 to 30 percent higher than in Europe, according to supporters, the difference more than makes up for the added transportation costs to get the electricity to Europe.
Meanwhile, a World Bank study has found that while, at the moment, all the electronic components would be imported into North Africa, by 2030, the region would see a mix of pure local production and local production with international firms. The region could create about 80,000 jobs in construction services and manufacturing if it can produce between 5 and 7 gigawatts of electricity. Already, a 500-megawatt solar concentration plant in Morocco's movie capital of Ouarzazate is under way that could become Desertec's first testing ground.
"Given the pressing employment needs in those countries ... to develop and innovate new technology is a great opportunity," said Jonathan Walters, World Bank manager for energy and transport in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. "If the market is open to a level playing field, then permanent jobs will be created in the manufacturing industry.
"It's about an industry you're creating," Walters said. "As the megawatts continue to scale up in the MENA region, eventually you'll have an export industry. Then you're creating permanent jobs. You have a whole R&D side. That's the potential we're seeing."
Yet for all the media hype about Desertec, its backers acknowledge that it remains more of a lobbying effort than a concrete blueprint for a solar revolution.
"Desertec is often anticipated as one single project in the desert of North Africa, and it's not. It is not one single project. It will be a series of projects ... and it will consist of many technologies," said Leopold Reymaier, senior vice president and deputy head of origination energy at HSH Nordbank and a shareholder in the Desertec Industrial Initiative.
"What is Desertec? It's a vision," Reymaier said. "It's really a vision about producing energy where the sun resources are, and bringing this electrical energy to where it's needed."
For some on both sides of the Mediterranean, the vision of Desertec gleams.
"We know that this is not a dream, because the technology is there. The technology for transmission is there and the technology for generation is there," said Mouldi Miled, executive director of the Desertec University Network.
Some North Africans see jobs and an end to instability
Europe, Miled said, could "gain 10 to 15 years in the fight against climate change" by importing solar energy from North Africa, as well as meet its renewable energy commitments. And supporters from the Middle East and North Africa said they see Desertec as a boon both for their nations' development and for their science, engineering and manufacturing communities.
"It's not just a project which aims at putting solar farms and panels in the desert and exporting electricity. It's about building the seeds of science and technology in their own countries," said Khaled Toukan, Jordan's minister of energy and mineral resources. Maged Al-Sherbiny, president of the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, agreed, describing Desertec as "having very good potential for Egypt" and helping to build bridges between the north and south.
"Now, with the surging prices of oil as well as the Fukushima incident ... it is time for solar energy," Al-Sherbiny said. "In the Mediterranean region, this is needed more than ever before, especially with the tsunamis of the revolutions there."
Indeed, scientists throughout the region insisted that the so-called Arab Spring that began with revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt before turning violent in countries like Yemen and Syria will yield to strong democracies that will better enable projects like Desertec.
"The Arab world needs a new narrative, a new dream. In many cases, the entire region is being fragmented by the national state models," said Odeh Al-Jayyousi, regional director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Jordan. "The Arab Spring is likely to inform a new discourse about rights-based natural resource management."
Others remain dubious
Others, though, say they doubt Europe's grand pronouncements about how much North Africa stands to benefit from Desertec.
"I have some apprehension," said professor Hamed El Mously, chairman of the Egyptian Society for Endogenous Development of Local Communities in Cairo.
"I have a fear of these mega-projects, because they are not very much suitable to the local communities. ... We have our own [energy] needs in our country. Maybe we need different mixes from you?" he pointed out to German scientists.
El Mously was one of a handful of skeptical attendees at the DESY conference who raised questions about things like who will own and the land on which Desertec-connected solar plants are built, and who cautioned that the entire venture smacked of European colonization. Others argued that if European companies really want to help Africa, the energy should instead flow to desperately needy parts of the continent.
"Many Africans are skeptical," said Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe, who coordinates the African Network for Solar Energy.
"[Europeans] make promises, but at the end of the day, they bring their engineers, they bring their equipment, and they go. It's a new form of resource exploitation just like in the past," Egbe said. "Desertec is a good idea. I'm not saying it's not a good idea. But knowing how the multinationals exploit in such countries, we have reason to be skeptical."
Desertec supporters are at once aggressively defensive and evasive. Twice during panel discussions in Hamburg, Knies rose to vigorously defend Desertec and Europe's intentions in the Middle East. But when El Mously posed a question to scientists on one panel about whether Egypt might benefit more from smaller and decentralized solar projects, a moderator pleaded with the crowd to avoid "anti-Desertec" comments and keep such questions to personal dinnertime conversations.
Yet Desertec continued to be a magnet for questions. Even some who support the plan -- like Amin Mobarak, a professor of mechanical engineering at Egypt's Cairo University who noted that North Africa's solar energy potential equals 1 million barrels of oil annually -- remained somewhat guarded and cautious.
More work and time needed
Desertec, Mobarak said, "needs a lot of time." And some things, like high-voltage transmission lines, can't be built without Europe's help. But, he said, "I believe it will benefit the people of the MENA region if they build these solar energy projects at least 80 percent local. If they build the industry here, they are generating jobs."
And professor Amr Amin, dean of engineering at Egypt's Helwan University, proposed the development of an E.U.-MENA solar energy center of excellence to exchange research. He recommended developing a blueprint of priorities that benefit both European and North African countries such as Egypt, which boasts the world's first solar thermal power plant and has attracted billions in solar and wind development in the past decade.
"We don't want the MENA region to just be importing technology," Amin said. "We have factories."
Gretchen Kalonji, assistant director-general of the UNESCO office of natural sciences, said Desertec leaders clearly have more work to do in convincing the North African public.
"They've obviously done a lot of consultation with the scientific communities. I think it's going to be critical to get more input from broader society."
The criticisms aren't lost on Desertec officials, and most said they know they have more work to do in gaining public acceptance. "I think that it is very important," Miled said. "It's not a technical matter. We need to avoid all the mistakes of the last decades."
Nevertheless, he, Knies and other supporters said they have little doubt that North Africa will turn to solar, that transmission lines will get built across the Mediterranean and that both Europe and parts of the Middle East will be powered by the sun's energy.
"I'm very optimistic about it, because I see so many different political forces lining up to help this thing," said the World Bank's Walters. If Europe shows a willingness to open its green energy markets and industrialized countries follow through with serious climate finance dollars to help get technology to cost, he said, "I think there's a combination of circumstances that help move this forward."
The New York Times, June 20, 2011