How far has DESERTEC actually progressed?
In contrast to widespread public perception, DESERTEC, the desert electricity project, is not simply an investment programme of 400 billion euros or more where a start is made today on a project that will reach completion in 40 years. DESERTEC is far more about initiating sustainable development.
Over the last four years, the main players have already succeeded in convincing numerous countries in North Africa to invest in renewable energy sources for the long term. This investment will enable them to reduce their own dependence on imported oil and gas, and to develop a longer-term potential export market to Europe for sustainable solar and wind power. The first solar power plants have already been built in Morocco, Algeria and Egypt; the total investment is many billions. Furthermore, the Dii (Desertec Industrial Initiative) has already prompted additional invitations to tender that are currently at the preparatory stage. Today, renewable energy is still more expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels, meaning that these projects need the support of international development banks, including KfW, a German government-owned development bank.
Electricity for Europe on a large scale from 2030
In the next 10 to 15 years, the countries of North Africa will consume the vast majority of the electricity they generate. Imports to Europe will not take place on a large scale until after 2030. By that time, here in Europe, we will have a very high proportion of variable wind and solar power in our national grids. Large-scale networking and solar power plants as controllable sources of electricity should then be helping to cost-effectively stabilise the power grid. The first relatively small-scale reference projects to demonstrate feasibility could already be in place by 2020.
However, inexpensive renewable electricity can also form a basis for providing countries in North Africa with a sustainable water supply. The region almost needs this more urgently than electricity. Desalination of seawater, at present only carried out by the oil-rich Gulf States, could become affordable for all countries in the Middle East and North Africa (the ‘MENA’ countries), and this can in turn be used for food production.
DLR supports Morocco in the construction of a research facility
Another common assumption is that DESERTEC is an electricity project for Europe. We, however, expect that it is the countries in North Africa that will be the principal beneficiaries of this initiative. We are already observing an increase in local added value from project to project. That means more jobs and less dependence on imports of raw materials. In many invitations to tender, a gradual transfer of technology is expected. We at DLR are supporting the Moroccan government in setting up its own research and testing infrastructure, but the European economy will continue to benefit from a roughly 40 to 50 percent share because many of the high-tech components come from Europe. We have to realise that the development of a solar power plant triggers an investment of up to one billion euros in a country, and about half of this is accounted for by the local added value. Over the long term, this money can be saved through reduced purchases of oil and gas.
DESERTEC Project: Solar power from the desert, wind power from the coasts – these DESERTEC drawings are derived from three DLR studies based on satellite data. Credit: DLR.
Through this further expansion we anticipate that, within the next 10 years, solar and wind power will, for many countries, become less expensive than the import of oil and gas at world market prices, which will further accelerate the expansion of this sector. Over the last few years, the Dii has calculated more precisely the savings that European customers will be able to make through desert electricity, without having to compromise on security of supply – at least 30 billion euros a year. This study compares the supply costs of using renewable energy sources in 2050 in networked (EU-MENA) and non-networked scenarios. To achieve that networking, we will first need to invest, but in the longer term this will deliver tangible benefits, as fewer power stations will be needed to provide the same amount of power and supply security.
Robert Pitz-Paal is Co-Director of the DLR Solar Research Institute. He conducts research into the further development of solar power plants and is the author of numerous studies on the potential benefits of solar-thermal power plants.