A plan to power Europe from solar power plants in Sahara desert, popularly known as Desertec, seems to have stalled, but several large North African solar projects are still going ahead despite local concerns. Where did the Desertec project go wrong, and can desert solar power yet play a role in a democratic and sustainable future?
If you use social media, you may well have seen a graphic going around, showing a tiny square in the Sahara desert with the caption: ‘This much solar power in the Sahara would provide enough energy for the whole world!’
Can this really be true? It is based on data from a research thesis written by Nadine May in 2005 for the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany. According to May, an area of 3.49 million km² is potentially available for concentrating solar power (CSP) plants in the North African countries Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. She argues that an area of 254 kilometres x 254 kilometres (the biggest box on the image) would be enough to meet the total electricity demand of the world. The amount of electricity needed by the EU-25 states could be produced on an area of 110 kilometres x 110 kilometres (assuming solar collectors that could capture 100 per cent of the energy). A more realistic estimation by the Land Art Generator Initiative assumed a 20-per-cent capture rate and put forward an area approximately eight times bigger than the May study for meeting the world’s energy needs. Nevertheless, the map is a good illustration of the potential of solar power and how little space would be needed to power the entire planet.
This isn’t a new idea. Back in 1913, the American engineer Frank Shuman presented plans for the world’s first solar thermal power station to Egypt’s colonial elite, including the British consul-general Lord Kitchener. The power station would have pumped water from the Nile River to the adjacent fields where Egypt’s lucrative cotton crop was grown, but the outbreak of the First World War abruptly ended this dream.
The idea was explored again in the 1980s by German particle physicist Gerhard Knies, who was the first person to estimate how much solar energy was required to meet humanity’s demand for electricity. In 1986, in direct response to the Chernobyl nuclear accident, he arrived at the following remarkable conclusion: in just six hours, the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than humans consume in a year. These ideas laid the groundwork for Desertec.
What is Desertec?
For the sake of clarity, it is worth differentiating between the Desertec Foundation and the Desertec Industrial Initiative. The non-profit Desertec Foundation was founded in January 2009 by a network of scientists, politicians and economists from around the Mediterranean. Its aim is to supply as many people and businesses as possible with renewable energy from the world’s deserts. This should, they hope, provide opportunities for prosperity and help protect the climate.
In the autumn of 2009, an ‘international’ consortium of companies formed the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), with weighty players such as E.ON, Munich Re, Siemens and Deutsche Bank all signing up as ‘shareholders’. It was formed as a largely German-led private-sector initiative with the aim of translating the Desertec concept into a profitable business project, by providing around 20 per cent of Europe’s electricity by 2050 through a vast network of solar- and windfarms stretching right across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. These generators would be connected to continental Europe via special high voltage, direct current transmission cables. The tentative total cost of this project has been estimated at €400 billion ($472 billion).
To understand the thinking behind Desertec, we need to consider some history. Between 1998 and 2006, a set of Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreements were formed between the EU and Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia. Their stated aim was the ‘gradual liberalization of trade’ in the region and the establishment of a Mediterranean free trade area. A project with similar goals called the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) was championed by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2008, to strengthen the ‘interdependence’ between the EU and the southern Mediterranean.
This goal of ‘interdependence’ is reminiscent of previous French prime minister Edgar Fouré’s famous coinage back in 1956, ‘L’indépendance dans l’interdépendance’, (independence in interdependence), a strategy promoted by successive French governments to maintain control and domination of the new ‘independent’ African countries. The UfM is designed to follow in their footsteps, furthering EU economic interests and reducing the need for energy imports from Russia. Promoting a renewable energy partnership was seen as a priority core project towards achieving these goals.
It is within this context of pro-corporate trade deals and a scramble for influence and energy resources that we should understand the Desertec project and especially its industrial arm, the Dii. Desertec could play a role in diversifying energy sources away from Russia as well as contributing to EU targets of reducing carbon emissions – and what better region to achieve these aims than MENA, an area well-endowed with natural resources, from fossil fuels to sun and wind. It seems that a familiar ‘colonial’ scheme is being rolled in front of our eyes: the unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources from the Global South to the rich industrialized North, maintaining a profoundly unjust international division of labour.
This is a genuine concern given the language used in different articles and publications describing the potential of the Sahara in powering the whole world. The Sahara is described as a vast empty land, sparsely populated; constituting a golden opportunity to provide Europe with electricity so it can continue its extravagant consumerist lifestyle and profligate energy consumption. This is the same language used by colonial powers to justify their civilizing mission and, as an African myself, I cannot help but be very suspicious of such megaprojects and their ‘well-intentioned’ motives that are often sugar-coating brutal exploitation and sheer robbery. Such sentiments were also raised by Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe of the African Network for Solar Energy in 2011. ‘Many Africans are sceptical about Desertec,’ he said. ‘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.’ The Tunisian trade unionist Mansour Cherni made similar points at the World Social Forum 2013 (WSF) held in Tunis when he asked: ‘Where will the energy produced here be used?…Where will the water come from that will cool the solar power plants? And what do the locals get from it all?’
Sustainable Development or Status quo?
There is nothing inherently wrong or dishonest in the Desertec idea. On the contrary, the goal of providing sustainable energy for the planet to fight global warming is to be applauded. But like any other idea, the questions of who uses it, how it is implemented, for what agenda and in which context it is being promoted, are of great importance.
Desertec was presented as a response to the issues of climate change, the Russian-Ukrainian gas conflicts in 2006 and 2009, fears of peak oil, and the global food crisis of 2009. However, if Desertec is really serious about addressing those crises, it needs to target their structural causes. Being an apolitical techno-fix, it promises to overcome these problems without fundamental change, basically maintaining the status quo and the contradictions of the global system that led to these crises in the first place. Moreover, by presenting the Euro-Med region as a unified community (we are all friends now and we need to fight against a common enemy!), it masks the real enemy of the MENA region, which is oppressive European hegemony and Western domination.
Big engineering-focused ‘solutions’ like Desertec tend to present climate change as a shared problem with no political or socio-economic context. This perspective hides the historical responsibilities of the industrialized West, the problems of the capitalist energy model, and the different vulnerabilities between countries of the North and the South. The MENA region is one of the regions hardest hit by climate change, despite producing less than 5 per cent of global carbon emissions, with water supplies in the area being particularly affected. The spread of solar energy initiatives that further plunder these increasingly-scarce water resources would be a great injustice. Desertec also provides PR cover to major energy businesses and oil and gas-fuelled regimes. Supporting big ‘clean energy’ projects lets them present themselves as environmental protectors rather than climate culprits.
The website of the foundation (which came up with the concept and gave it its name) states: ‘Desertec has never been about delivering electricity from Africa to Europe, but to supply companies in desert regions with energy from the sun instead of oil and gas.’ Despite this, the Dii consortium of (mainly European) companies was openly geared towards delivering energy from Africa to Europe. Eventually, however, the fall in the price of solar panels and wind turbines in the EU led the consortium to concede in 2013 that Europe can provide for most of its clean energy needs indigenously. The tensions between the foundation and Dii culminated in a divorce between the two in July 2013 as the former preferred to distance itself from the management crisis and disorientation of the industrial consortium. As a result of these developments, Dii shrank from 17 partners to only three by the end of 2014 (German RWE, Saudi Acwa Power and China State Grid).
Where is Desertec now?
For some people, the shrinking of Dii signalled the demise of Desertec. However, with or without Dii, the Desertec vision is still going ahead with projects in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Despite its stated ideals about powering Africa, the Desertec foundation is backing the Tunur project in Tunisia, a joint venture between Nur Energy, a British-based solar developer and a group of Maltese and Tunisian investors in the oil and gas sector. It explicitly describes itself as a large solar power export project linking the Sahara desert to Europe that will dispatch power to European consumers starting in 2018. Given that Tunisia depends on its neighbour Algeria for its energy needs and that it faces increasingly frequent power cuts, it would be outrageous (to say the least) to proceed with exports rather than producing for the local market. According to Med Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian investigative journalist working in the energy sector, the project seeks to take advantage of new Tunisian legislation allowing the liberalization of green energy production and distribution, breaking the monopoly of the state company STEG (Société Tunisienne d’Electricité et de Gaz) and opening the way to direct export of electricity by private companies. He describes it as ‘state prostitution’ and a confirmation of the Tunisian government’s submission to corporate diktats that go against the national interest.
Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, with help from Dii consortium members, has attracted funding from international lenders to develop the world’s largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant at Ourzazate. It was originally envisioned as an export project, but failed to secure Spanish government support for an undersea cable; the project is now promoted as a means for Morocco to increase its own renewable energy supply. However, the role of transnational companies in the project is still attracting criticism. M Jawad, a campaigner from ATTAC/CADTM Morocco, is concerned about the increasing control exerted by transnationals on electrical energy production in his country. He sees projects like Ourzazate as a threat to national sovereignty in the clean energy sector, because crucial decisions that affect the whole population are being taken by a handful of technocrats, far from any democratic process or consultation.
A Community-centred Approach
The assumption that economic liberalization and ‘development’ necessarily lead to prosperity, stability and democracy – as if neoliberalism and the (under)development agenda of the West had nothing to do with the Arab Uprisings – is preposterous. Any project concerned with producing sustainable energy must be rooted in local communities, geared towards providing and catering for their needs and centred around energy and environmental justice.
This is even more important when we think about the issue in the context of the Arab Uprisings and the demands of the revolutions: bread, freedom, social justice and national sovereignty. Projects involving large transnationals tend to take a top-down approach, increasing the risk of displacement, land-grabbing and local pollution. Without community involvement, there is no guarantee that such schemes will help with alleviating poverty, reducing unemployment or preserving a safe environment.
This has been a major failing of the Desertec initiative. Only a few actors from the South of the Mediterranean were involved in its development, and most of them represented public institutions and central authorities, not the local communities who would be affected by the project.
The Desertec foundation did publish a set of criteria to ensure that large-scale solar projects in desert regions are implemented in an environmentally and socially responsible way. However, in the absence of democratic control, transparency and citizen participation in decision making in the MENA region, those criteria will remain ink on paper.
Another important question is: will these projects transfer the knowledge, expertise and designs of the renewable technology to the countries in this region? This seems unlikely given the transnationals’ usual reticence in doing so and questions of intellectual property around such technologies. As an example, the glass troughs (solar thermal collectors) for North African CSP plants are all made in Germany, and the patents for the glass tube receivers are held by German companies. Without fair access to such technologies, MENA countries will remain dependent on the West and transnationals for future renewable development.
Solar Energy, a new Tool for Authoritarian Regimes?
To come back to the Arab uprisings, Desertec presented itself as a possible way out of the crisis, by bringing new opportunities to the region. This is baffling given that the project co-operated with corrupt elites and authoritarian regimes, some of which have since been overthrown, and others of which continue to oppress their populations.
Instead of providing a route to ‘develop’ away from repressive governments, the centralized nature of large CSP plants makes them an ideal source of income for corrupt and authoritarian regimes in the region (such as Algeria, Egypt and Morocco) and thus could help to keep them in power. To illustrate this risk, let’s take Algeria as an example.
Oil and gas have provided income for the Algerian regime for decades, and are used to buy social peace and maintain its grip on power. As the brutal Algerian civil war (a war against civilians, to be more accurate) was raging, with systematic violence from both the state and Islamist fundamentalists, BP finalized a contract worth $3 billion in December 1995, giving it the right to exploit gas deposits in the Sahara for the next 30 years. Total completed a similar deal worth $1.5 billion one month later, and in November 1996 a new pipeline supplying gas to the EU was opened, the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline through Spain and Portugal. These contracts undoubtedly bolstered the regime as it exerted systematic violence across the country and at a time of international isolation.
Tied to Algeria through huge investments, these companies and the EU had a clear interest in making sure that the repressive regime did not go under and acquiesced to the Algerian regime’s ‘Dirty War’ of the 1990s. A renewable megaproject like Desertec that ties European economies to corrupt MENA governments would create exactly the same kind of problems.
Whether fossil fuelled or renewable, energy schemes that don’t benefit the people where the energy is extracted, that serve to prop up authoritarian and repressive regimes or only enrich a tiny minority of voracious elites and transnationals are scandalous and must be resisted.
Advocates for benign-sounding clean energy export projects like Desertec need to be careful they’re not supporting a new ‘renewable energy grab’: after oil, gas, gold, diamonds and cotton, is it now the turn of solar energy to maintain the global imperial dominance of the West over the rest of the planet?
Rather than embracing such gargantuan projects, we should instead support decentralized small-scale projects that can be democratically managed and controlled by local communities that promote energy autonomy. We don’t want to replicate the fossil fuel tragedy and therefore we must say: Leave the sunlight in the desert for its people!
Note: This article was originally published in March 2015 issue of New Internationalist and can be found at this link.