Desertec: the renewable energy grab?

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Desertec: the renewable energy grab?

There was a plan to produce lots of power for Europe from solar energy in the Sahara. The main plans have stopped, but several large North African solar projects are still happening. The local people are worried. Hamza Hamouchene asks: where did the Desertec project go wrong, and can desert solar power play a role in a democratic and sustainable future?


The Ivanpah solar concentrating power station in California. Will this come soon to the Sahara? © Ashley Cooper pics / Alamy

If you use social media, maybe you have seen a graphic, showing a tiny square in the Sahara desert saying: ‘This much solar power in the Sahara is enough energy for the whole world!’

Can this really be true? It’s from a study by Nadine May in 2005 for the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany.


Nadine May

May says it would be possible to use an area of 3.49 million km² for solar power (CSP) plants in the North African countries Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. She says an area of 254 kilometres x 254 kilometres (the biggest box on the image) would be enough to provide all the electricity the world needs. The EU-25 need energy that could be produced on an area of 110 kilometres x 110 kilometres (if solar collectors can use 100 per cent of the energy). A more realistic estimation by the Land Art Generator Initiative say the solar plant can use 20-per-cent and said the world needs an area about eight times bigger than the May study for all its energy. But the map shows the potential of solar power and how little space we need to power all the world.

This isn’t a new idea. In 1913, the American engineer Frank Shuman showed his plans for the world’s first solar thermal power station to Egypt’s colonial governors (including the British consul-general Lord Kitchener). The power station would pump water from the Nile River to the cotton fields, but the start of the First World War ended this dream.

In the 1980s, German particle physicist Gerhard Knies was the first person to estimate how much solar energy we need to make electricity for the whole world. In 1986, after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, he said: in only six hours, the world’s deserts get more energy from the sun than humans use in a year. These ideas were the preparation for Desertec.

What is Desertec?

The Desertec Foundation and the Desertec Industrial Initiative are not the same. The Desertec Foundation is non-profit and was started in January 2009 by a network of scientists, politicians and economists from around the Mediterranean. It wants to supply as many people and businesses as possible with renewable energy from the world’s deserts. They hope this will help people live well and help protect the climate.


A map of the cheapest distribution of renewable-energy sources in 2050 (from simulations by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Karlsruhe, Germany).

In autumn 2009, an ‘international’ group of companies started the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii). Many powerful companies like E.ON, Munich Re, Siemens and Deutsche Bank bought shares. It was mostly led by private German companies. It wanted to change the the Desertec idea into a business project that would make money. They planned to provide about 20 per cent of Europe’s electricity by 2050 from many solar- and windfarms all across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The generators would connect to continental Europe with high voltage cables. They thought the cost could be €400 billion ($472 billion).

To understand Desertec, we need to look at the history. Between 1998 and 2006, the EU and Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia made the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreements. They said they wanted to free trade and set up a Mediterranean free trade area. French President Nicolas Sarkozy supported a similar project in 2008 - the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) - to make the links stronger between the EU and the southern Mediterranean.

This is like what the previous French prime minister Edgar Fouré’s said in 1956, ‘L’indépendance dans l’interdépendance’, (independence in interdependence). Many French governments since then have wanted this, to keep control of the new ‘independent’ African countries. The UfM is following this pattern. It is good for the economy of the EU and it means they will not need to import so much energy from Russia. A renewable energy partnership is very important to achieve this.

So the Desertec project is in the middle of these business deals, and everyone fighting for power and energy. It also has an industrial part – the Dii. Desertec could help moving energy sources away from Russia and help EU targets of reducing carbon emissions. And the MENA area is good for this - with a lot of natural resources, fossil fuels, sun and wind. It is just like the old colonies – taking cheap natural resources from the Global South to the rich industrialized North, and keeping an unfair international division of labour.

People are worried about this – saying the Sahara could power the whole world. Some people say the Sahara is a big, empty land, with very few people; this is a very good opportunity to get electricity to Europe so Europeans can continue their wasteful consumerist lifestyle, using far too much energy. This is the same language colonial powers used to say how they were helping to civilise Africa. I am African, and I am very suspicious of very big projects like this. They say they are doing it for good reasons, but they are really exploiting and stealing.

Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe of the African Network for Solar Energy said the same in 2011. ‘Many Africans have doubts about Desertec,’ he said. ‘Europeans make promises, but then 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) in Tunis. He asked: ‘Where will the energy produced here be used?...Where will the water come from to cool the solar power plants? And what will the locals get from it?’

Sustainable development?

There is nothing wrong or dishonest in the Desertec idea. The goal of providing sustainable clean energy for the planet to fight global warming is great. But like any other idea, it is very important to ask who uses it, how it is organised, why and where.

People said Desertec could help with many things: climate change, the Russian-Ukrainian gas conflicts in 2006 and 2009, fears of peak oil, and the global food crisis of 2009. But if Desertec really wants to help, it needs to look at the reasons for the problems. It says it will overcome these problems without real change, keeping the same systems in place that caused these problems. And because it makes it look like the Euro-Med region is a unified group (we are all friends now and we need to fight against a common enemy!), it stops people seeing the real enemy of the MENA region: European control and Western domination.

Big engineering ‘solutions’ like Desertec show climate change as a problem we all have, with no political or socio-economic context. This means we do not think about the historical responsibilities of the industrialized West, the problems of the capitalist energy model, and the relationship between countries of the North and the South. The MENA region is one of the regions with most problems from climate change. And they produce less than 5 per cent of global carbon emissions. Water supplies in the area are now a big problem. If there are more solar energy projects, it will be very unfair to use the little water they have. Desertec also lets the big energy businesses and governments of countries that use a lot of gas and oil look good. They support big ‘clean energy’ projects, so they look like they are protecting the environmental, not the ones responsible for climate change.

The website says: ‘Desertec has never wanted to deliver electricity from Africa to Europe, but to supply companies in desert regions with energy from the sun instead of oil and gas.’ But the Dii consortium of (mainly European) companies wanted to deliver energy from Africa to Europe. But because of the fall in the price of solar panels and wind turbines in the EU they agreed in 2013 that Europe can provide for most of its clean energy needs itself. So Desertec and Dii separated in July 2013. Dii became smaller, from 17 partners to only three by the end of 2014 (German RWE, Saudi Acwa Power and China State Grid).

Where is Desertec now?

Some people say that now Dii is smaller, this will be the end of Desertec. But the Desertec vision is continuing with projects in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. It says it wants to power Africa, but it is supporting the Tunur project in Tunisia. This is a link between Nur Energy (a British-based solar developer) and a group of Maltese and Tunisian investors in oil and gas. It says it is a large solar power export project linking the Sahara desert to Europe that will send power to Europe from 2018. Tunisia depends on its neighbour Algeria for its energy and has many power cuts. So it would be terrible to export the energy and not help the local people. Med Dhia Hammami (Tunisian journalist in the energy sector) says the project is working round new laws in Tunisia to free the production of green energy. He says it is ‘state prostitution’ and not helping Tunisia.

And the Moroccan government, with help from Dii, has got money from international lenders to develop the world’s largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant at Ourzazate. They planned to export the energy, but couldn’t get support from the Spanish government for a cable under the sea. Now they say Morocco needs to increase its renewable energy supply. But people say it is not good to have big international companies in the project. M Jawad (a campaigner from ATTAC/CADTM Morocco) is worried that international companies have more and more control over electrical energy production in his country. He says projects like Ourzazate are a threat to national sovereignty in the clean energy sector. A few international business people are making very important decisions that affect the whole population, so it is not democratic.

A community-centred approach

We cannot assume that economic liberalization and ‘development’ always bring prosperity, stability and democracy. A project to produce sustainable energy must involve local communities, and must help the local people and bring energy and environmental justice.

This is even more important in the context of the Arab Uprisings. They demanded bread, freedom, social justice and national sovereignty. Big international projects usually control from the top. Usually they make people leave their homes, take the land and pollute the area. If the community is not involved, the people cannot check that the project will help cut poverty and unemployment or keep a safe environment.

This has been a very big problem with the Desertec project. Most of the people involved were from North of the Mediterranean. And most of them were from public institutions and central authorities, not the local communities who would be affected by the project.

The Desertec foundation said they wanted to work in an environmentally and socially responsible way. But, without democratic control, transparency and citizen helping make decisions in the MENA region, this will not work in practice.

Another important question is: will these projects teach local people how to make their own renewable technology? Probably not. International companies usually do not do this, and they own the ideas. An example is the ‘glass troughs’ (solar thermal collectors) for North African CSP plants. They are all made in Germany, and German companies hold the patents. If MENA countries cannot use this technology, they will still be dependent on the West and international companies for future renewable development.

Solar energy, supporting authoritarian regimes?

In the Arab uprisings, Desertec said it was a solution to the problems because it was bringing work and energy to the area. This is confusing. The project worked with corrupt governments who control their people.

The big CSP plants do not help development away from controlling governments, but, because they are centralised, they are a very good way of getting money from corruption (eg. in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco) and could help to keep these governments in power.

For example in Algeria. The government have had money from oil and gas for decades. They use this to buy social peace and to control the country. In the Algerian civil war (a war against civilians), there was a lot of violence from the state and Islamist fundamentalists. In the middle of this war, BP agreed a $3 billion contract in December 1995. This gave them the right to get gas from the Sahara for the next 30 years. Total made another agreement, of $1.5 billion one month later; and in November 1996 a new pipeline bringing gas to the EU was opened, the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline through Spain and Portugal. These contracts supported the government when it was controlling the country with violence.

The companies and the EU did not want to lose their money, so they had to support the government and they agreed to the ‘Dirty War’ of the 1990s. A very big renewable project like Desertec - that links European economies to corrupt MENA governments - would create exactly the same kind of problems.

All energy projects, for fossil fuels or renewable energy, need to help the people where the energy is taken from. If the projects support authoritarian governments or only make money for a few greedy people or international companies, we must fight against them.

People who fight for energy export projects that sound good, like Desertec, need to be careful they’re not supporting a new ‘renewable energy grab’. We had the grabs for oil, gas, gold, diamonds and cotton. Is it now the turn of solar energy to keep the West controlling the rest of the world?

Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian activist and she helped start the London-based Algeria Solidarity Campaign.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).