The dream of world’s largest solar power plant fades away

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Ambitious dreams

The basic idea behind the Desertec project was to improve energy security of Europe and reduce CO2 emissions. Solar power represents the greatest under-unexploited source of power on Earth and is carbon free. Scientists estimate that covering 3 percent of the Sahara’s surface with solar plants would satisfy the demands of the entire planet.

Desertec Industrial Initiative was launched in July 2009 by 12 companies who agreed to establish financing plans to develop solar projects in Sahara desert.

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The consortium envisages that 15 percent of Europe’s electricity needs will eventually be provided by electricity generated in the African desert, using concentrated solar power (CSP) technology. CSP technology uses hundreds of giant mirrors which focus sun rays on a receiver containing a liquid like oil, producing steam to drive a turbine.

The cost of solar power exploitation is still very high and remains the main obstacle for mass production compared to fossil fuel.  Nevertheless, developers of the Desertec project assumed that solar prices will continue to fall as a result of technology improvements and growing volumes, while fossil fuels were expected to become significantly more expensive.

But, by the end of 2012 it  had become evident that the project had run into a dead end, when two mayor investors, Siemens and Bosch, pulled out of the project. The Spanish government had also backedout of a deal to build solar plants in Morocco, due to serious financial troubles in the country.  During the third Desertec annual conference held at the Berlin foreign ministry, not a single German minister appeared at the meeting, clearly showing that political support for the project evaporated in spite of the fact that it was backed by the EU and several other countries in the beginning.

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Raising doubts and questions

According to Peter Droege, president of Eurosolar, an industry association, Desertec project was too expensive and utopian, hence attracted very little funding. It has essentially collapsed into more or less a bilateral deal. Furthermore, the faith of the project became even more uncertain with the growing political instability in Northern Africa following the Arab Spring. An even more evident problem is the lack of financial resources in Europe.

As German parliamentarian, Michael Kauch,the environmental spokesman of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party stated “The rarest resource in Europe is money. It’s even rarer than energy or rare earth minerals.” It is hence not surprising that some of the major investors like Siemens pulled out. The company says that it still supports the mission in principle, and may offer some alternative solutions.  Wind energy, for example, has taken on an increasingly important role in plans for Desertec, hoping to tap into Africa’s coastal winds and Siemens now plans to develop wind exploitation technology.

So far, it seems as though Desertec will never move from a power point presentation to a power plant facility.

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