Parliaments & Climate Change: Why the Desertec vision is worth defending

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This is a blog post by Ben Martin, Editor at the Climate Parliament, one of AGORA's partners.  Climate Parliament works with legislators worldwide to encourage parliamentary action on climate change. 

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Why the Desertec vision is worth defending

Recent internal troubles at the solar energy consortium don't invalidate its founding focus

It seems that all is not well at the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), the €400bn joint venture that aims to develop the renewable energy resources of the Sahara desert for mass export to Europe.

First, German manufacturing giant and founding shareholder Siemens pulled out of the alliance in November last year. Then in May came reports that Dii was abandoning its core strategic focus of North African solar exports. And this week, the Desertec Foundation – the non-profit group who developed the original idea and helped to established Dii as a strategic implementing body – announced that it too was leaving the consortium, citing disputes over strategy.

This industrial turmoil has caused some to doubt that large-scale solar export from the Maghreb to Europe is possible. Indeed, the Desertec vision has been criticised in the past as being too ambitious, even “utopian”. Yet, despite Desertec’s current teething troubles, the core idea of linking the renewable resources of Europe and North Africa into a mutually beneficial “supergrid” remains as compelling – on economic, social, and climactic grounds – as ever.

Some of the world’s richest reserves of solar and wind energy are located just outside the European Union, in the deserts of North Africa – enough to power Europe many times over. And thanks to the strength of the desert sun, the same solar panel generates almost twice as much electricity if it is installed in Morocco instead of Germany – in other words, the same amount of energy can be generated at half the cost.

This energy could be transmitted cost-effectively to Europe using high-voltage direct current (HVDC) cables, which lose only around 3% of power every 1,000km, and add less than 1¢ per kWh in distribution costs. Importing Saharan solar would help the EU to meet its decarbonisation targets – and would save €33 billion every year compared to a “Europe-only” renewables strategy.

Finally, exporting Saharan solar is a win-win proposition for both parties – not a neocolonialist grab for resources, as some have claimed. Conventional sources of energy are already struggling to keep up with the pace of demand in North Africa; renewables, however, could reduce energy poverty, encourage direct foreign investment, and create thousands of skilled jobs. Per dollar invested, renewable technology creates three times as many jobs as fossil fuel industries, while renewable energy exports from North Africa to Europe could generate over €60 billion in export revenues per annum – more than Morocco and Egypt's current export revenues combined.This energy could be transmitted cost-effectively to Europe using high-voltage direct current (HVDC) cables, which lose only around 3% of power every 1,000km, and add less than 1¢ per kWh in distribution costs. Importing Saharan solar would help the EU to meet its decarbonisation targets – and would save €33 billion every year compared to a “Europe-only” renewables strategy.
The case for Saharan solar exports is clear, and despite Desertec’s current internal struggles, many have already recognized the potential and begun to take action to realize it. Both Morocco and Tunisia have outlined plans to rapidly develop large scale wind and solar facilities, with an eye for European export, and are already pressing ahead on ambitious construction projects. And bilateral agreements between individual countries, such as Nur Energie’s project to deliver Tunisian solar to Italian consumers, show that export is economically viable and that supergrids can be built piece by piece.

For now however, the Desertec initiative has seemingly stalled. Dii has failed to attract enough government support, and hasn’t raised enough investment, to convince a traditionally risk-adverse energy industry of the value of North African solar energy exports. Drill down into the Desertec dissent, however, and a familiar story reveals itself: a tale of promising climate change projects undone by a lack of political will and the legislative commitment they desperately need.

Support for the Desertec Initiative from both European and North African governments has been long on rhetoric and short on concrete policy action. This has discouraged private firms from stumping up cash for solar export projects. Greater regulatory support and political commitment is urgently required to reassure a sceptical industry and unlock much-needed private investment. Until legislators show that they are committed to a EU-North Africa grid, markets will have little reason to invest.

That’s why the Climate Parliament is working with MPs and MEPs from across the European and North African region, to build the political will required to encourage large-scale investment in renewable energy and supergrid interconnectors. We’ve already achieved some remarkable successes. Our group of MEPs in the European Parliament was recently able to lobby the European Commission to earmark at least €2.5billion for building electricity interconnectors, including HVDC links across the Mediterranean.

Furthermore, our work in the Parliaments of Morocco and Tunisia has shown that there is a real appetite amongst local MPs for developing their local renewable resources for export and to power local cities, villages and factories. And, in October this year, we’re holding an international Parliamentary hearing in Morocco, which will bring together parliamentarians from across the MENA region for a peer-led discussion on how MPs can attract capital investment for renewable projects in the developing world.

Our experience has shown that investors rarely, if ever, go it alone on bold investment in renewables, which are still seen in the industry as comparatively risky. For markets to move, they need clear signals from legislators that renewables will have the political support they need to flourish. We hope that, by developing a base of solid legislative and regulatory support for renewable energy investment, our MPs can help lay the foundations for ambitious projects such as the Desertec venture. And the money is out there – both UNEP and REN21 have reported encouraging signals that renewable investment is rising rapidly in the developing world, up 19% in 2012 alone to almost $120 billion.

Some critics accused Dii of being too visionary; it certainly seems true that, at present, the reach of the project exceeds the grasp of the international investment community. But if we are to have any chance of averting the devastating floods, fires and food shortages of climate change, we desperately need such visions as Desertec’s – now more than ever.

Ben Martin - Editor, the Climate Parliament
All views expressed are those of the author alone