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.