World’s largest solar project set to gain new partners


The Desertec project, which aims to power Europe with solar energy from the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, is to go truly international next month as five new companies from Spain, Italy, France, Morocco and Tunisia join the scheme.

The project aims to cover 15% of Europe's electricity needs by 2050 by importing renewable energy, primarily solar power (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on 'Solar power') via a high voltage cable. It utilises concentrating solar thermal power (CSP), which collects sunlight via mirrors to produce steam, which then drives turbines to generate electricity.

Paul van Son, chief executive of the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), told journalists last week that many companies had expressed an interest in joining the consortium of 12 companies that was established in July 2009 to devise financing plans for the project (EURACTIV 22/07/09).

The joint venture is currently dominated by German companies, including E.ON, RWE and Siemens. The group of 12 companies already has one Algerian member, Cevital, but the arrival of other Northern African companies is expected to win support for the project in the region.

"With the new partners we'll have a broader base. That's important for acceptance. It's important that we have companies involved from MENA countries (Middle East and North Africa)," said Van Son, according to Reuters.

He said the €400 billion long-term plan would start delivering within a decade with its first projects.

One of the first goals for the next three years is to get early reference projects up and running, said Alexander Mohanty, spokesperson for the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII). Although the timescale for completion spans four decades, construction should start before 2020 with smaller projects to show that the project will work in practice, he explained.

The initiative is now finding locations for early projects, Mohanty added, citing Morocco as a potential host.

Another crucial issue the partnership is working on is securing a beneficial legal framework that stimulates investment in North African countries, the spokesperson said. He added that this could take the form of feed-in tariffs.

Feed-in tariffs have been stimulating growth of solar and wind markets in Germany since the country's Renewable Energy Act (EEG) entered into force in 2000, and the model has since been adopted by over 40 countries. As solar energy remains more expensive than fossil fuels, such price incentives are key to attracting investment and accelerating technological development.

But there are currently no provisions on imported clean electricity to guarantee that the electricity generated by Desertec is bought at a certain price over a long period of time.

"If we don't get this investment feasible, the whole project won't work," Mohanty said. How feed-in tariffs would work when several countries are involved is one of the main issues that the consortium is working on, he added.

The Desertec concept was developed by the Club of Rome's Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) network to bring solar power to Europe from North Africa.

The idea has become increasingly attractive since the EU's new Renewable Energies Directive set a binding goal to reach a 20% share of renewable energies in the EU's energy mix by 2020, detailing individual targets for each country (EURACTIV 09/12/08).

In July 2009, 12 companies launched the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), and agreed to establish financing plans to develop solar projects in the Sahara Desert.

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