The US$500-billion scheme promises power from a network of concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) stations across MENA, connected to each other and to the European Grid through undersea cables.
Desertec, an ambitious solar energy project in the Middle East and Africa, should be more transparent and participatory, argues Athar Osama.
Desertec is the largest solar power project ever conceived. It is designed to provide a significant portion of the electricity needs of participating countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and up to 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050.
The US$500-billion scheme promises power from a network of concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) stations across MENA, connected to each other through a high-voltage direct current transmission grid, and to the European Grid through undersea cables.
It’s a ‘dream’ project. But it could follow the fate of an earlier ambitious energy initiative. In 1994, Pakistan’s then government signed contracts with 19 private independent power plants (IPPs) and quickly attracted more than $5 billion in investment to develop a capacity of generating 4,500 megawatts of power.
The policy was hailed by the international community, and described by the US Energy Secretary as ‘the best energy policy in the whole world’ during a visit to Karachi in September 1994.
But by 1998, a new government issued notices of intent to terminate the contracts with 11 IPPs — accusing its predecessor of not following a least-cost approach in the selection of capacity, location, technology and fuel mix — which led to international arbitration and ultimately renegotiation of the contracts.
Years after criticisms and accusations of improper handling of the contracts, Pakistan’s power sector suffers still from debt that has brought daily rolling blackouts and exacerbated the country’s development challenges.
The designers of Desertec should heed the lessons from Pakistan’s experience, or they risk a similar fate.
Desertec was initially proposed in 2003 by the global think tank The Club of Rome and the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC – a joint Club of Rome/German association), and championed by a group of technocrats and politicians, led by Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan.
The Desertec Foundation, established in 2009, created — together with 12 private companies from Europe and MENA — the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) to implement the vision on an industrial scale.
The Desertec Foundation says the project will not only serve the MENA region, but by 2050 will also export up to 700 terawatt hours a year at a competitive price to Europe.
It will require unprecedented cooperation between MENA countries — a number of which (such as Algeria and Morocco) do not have a history of regional cooperation.
Critics have also accused Desertec of being ‘nothing more than a new and expansive form of energy colonialism’ that will commit MENA countries into providing Europe’s future clean energy needs.
To top it all, MENA researchers and activists have claimed that the project’s design and action plan neglect local energy needs, and may not be the best solution for the region.
Some are also concerned that it may also deliver little or no technology transfer and scientific benefits. 
Local participation is critical
It is therefore crucial — particularly for a project of this magnitude — that planning is more thorough and transparent. The Desertec project may fall short on both counts.
As things stand, much of the technical analysis seems to have been carried out by a single entity, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). Given the overwhelming German economic and commercial interest in the project, this may be seen as an interested party, and a perception of bias could hamper progress.
There is clearly a need for greater transparency surrounding the technical challenges and bottlenecks (such as transmission losses in the grid and undersea cables), as well as the costs involved. Others must independently validate the ‘official’ analysis or carry out their own studies with the involvement of MENA scientists and engineers.
MENA participating countries must also do more to examine local needs and develop their own optimal energy mix.
At present, commercial interests are driving the project, and there is too little emphasis on the potential science and technology spin-off benefits for the host countries.
A new political climate
In a time of unprecedented political uncertainty in the region resulting from the Arab Spring, there is another complicating factor.
The old ways of building political and diplomatic consensus in the region will almost certainly not work in the future. Gone are the days of dealing with a single dictator, or with royalty alone. People are increasingly demanding a greater voice in their future. This means Desertec’s foreign and local champions face a challenge in canvassing grassroots support for the project in these countries.
Critics have complained of a rigid top-down approach both from North to South and from central to local governments within each country. This is unlikely to work in the long run, and must be replaced with a more participative, transparent approach of policymaking and consensus building.
If implemented correctly, through a true partnership, Desertec may well benefit MENA not only by promoting low-carbon, sustainable energy, but also by bringing foreign investment and revenues to support other development priorities in the region.
Countries participating in Desertec must focus on doing what is best for them. And in the process, they might end up doing what is right for Europe and the world. But the process must start from the inside, rather than be imposed by outside interests.
Athar Osama is a London-based science and innovation policy researcher and consultant, and director of Middle East and Asia for a technology policy consulting firm. He is the founder of www.Muslim-Science.com.