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Renewable energy

Saharan sun to power Europe

by Ernst Rauch
Deserts have massive solar potential. According to Greenpeace, two per cent of the Sahara area could harness enough solar energy to supply the world with electrity. The vision of eco-friendly power from the desert dates back a long time. Finally, major corporations are showing interest in generating electricity for Europe in the Sahara. They are lead by Munic Re, an insurance giant. Ernst Rauch is in charge of dealing with climate issues at Munich Re. He explains the background of investment plans that amount to hundred billion euro figures. [ Ernst Rauch ]

The concept for Desertec has been around for years. It was developed by a network of scientists associated with the Club of Rome. Why is it only now being implemented?
There are two reasons. First, the technologies are much better. With high-voltage DC transmission systems, distances of more than 1,000 kilometres can be covered with only around five per cent loss of power. That was not possible in the past. Secondly, the political debate has moved forward and major companies are now much more interested in renewable energies. That is why a group of industrial companies has now formed to examine the feasibility of implementing this concept. What is more, solar power can now be produced much more cheaply today than even a few years ago.

Eon, Siemens, Deutsche Bank – the companies that have signalled interest in the project are mostly German. Why is that?
Invitations to participate in the Desertec initiative went out to leaders in technology, the solar and energy sector and the financial sector in Germany, Europe and North Africa. A number of firms from Germany and a Swiss company have already accepted. But we are still waiting for a response from companies in the North African countries. Some of them, however, are currently having to contend with economic difficulties. But even after the project is set up in July, the initiative will be open to all interested parties.

Who will profit from this gigantic project?
Everyone. We really see it as a win-win-win situation. First of all, regional and local industry will be involved in building the infrastructure. So there is a direct economic benefit. Furthermore, a substantial amount of the energy generated will remain in the producer countries and thus be available for economic development. That additional energy could also be used to desalinate seawater and thus alleviate the shortage of drinking water that particularly plagues North Africa. And Europe will profit as well, of course. In the long term, Saharan electricity could meet 15 % of Europe's energy requirements.

How much electricity will actually stay in the producer countries?
It is far too early to talk figures at this point. But there is general agreement that there can be no question of transporting all the electricity to Europe.

And when will the desert electricity start to flow?
It will certainly be a matter of years before the vision is realised. At the moment, we are looking at a horizon of five to ten years. The most important thing now is to clarify political and legal questions so that investment can begin – because the region in question has a very inhomogeneous political landscape. Lots of economic aspects need to be examined as well.

What role might the Mediterranean Union play for the Desertec project?
A very important one. At present, there are a few problems. But without the Mediterranean Union or a similar grouping, there is no way the project could be implemented. That is why we also involved the Arab League. The Arab League is a very important contact for us in the region at the moment. It was involved from the outset and will also be present when the Desertec industry initiative is established in Munich.

Questions by Claudia Isabel Rittel.