Quagmire in the Sahara: Desertec’s Promise of Solar Power for Europe Fades
As recently as three years ago, many thought that it was only a matter of time before solar thermal plants in North Africa supplied a significant portion of Europe’s energy needs. But Desertec has hit a road block. Industrial backers are jumping ship, political will is tepid and a key pilot project has suddenly stalled.
Supporters hailed the Desertec Industrial Initiative as the most ambitious solar energy project ever when it was founded in 2009. Major industrial backers pledged active involvement, politicians saw a win-win proposition and environmentalists fawned over Europe’s green energy future. For a projected budget of €400 billion ($560 billion), the venture was to pipe clean solar power from the Sahara Desert through a Mediterranean super-grid to energy-hungry European countries.
Today, a scant three years later, there is still little to show for the project but the ambition.
The list of recent setbacks in daunting. The project has failed to break ground on a single power plant. Spain recently balked at signing a declaration of intent to connect high-voltage lines between Morocco and the rest of Europe. In recent weeks, two of the biggest industrial supporters at the founding of the initiative, Siemens and Bosch, backed out. And perhaps most tellingly, though last week’s third annual Desertec conference was held in Berlin’s Foreign Ministry, not a single German cabinet minister bothered to attend.
“Much to his regret, Minister Rösler could not participate in the third Dii Desert Energy Conference due to conflicting schedules,” the German Economy Ministry said in a statement explaining Philipp Rösler’s absence. “Notwithstanding, the federal government, in principle, is willing to support a Desertec pilot project in Morocco. However, there are several open questions. Therefore, Minister Rösler has advised against too much euphoria.”
Political backing for energy from the desert, in other words, is evaporating.