An ambitious plan to provide 15% of Europe’s power needs from solar plants in North Africa has run into trouble.
The Desertec initiative hoped to deliver electricity from a network of renewable energy sources to Europe via cables under the sea.
But in recent weeks, two big industrial backers have pulled out.
And the Spanish government has baulked at signing an agreement to build solar power plants in Morocco.
Desertec was set up in 2009 with a projected budget of 400bn euros to tap the enormous potential of solar and other renewables in North Africa.
The hope was that by 2050, around 125 gigawatts of electric power could be generated. This would meet all the local needs and also allow huge amounts of power to be exported to Europe via high-voltage direct current cables under the Mediterranean sea.
But three years later, the project has little to show for its efforts. Two large industrial partners, Siemens and Bosch, have decided they will no longer be part of the initiative.
According to Dr Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe, a professor at the University of Linz in Austria and an expert on African solar resources, this is not good news.
“Siemens and Bosch are very big companies,” he told BBC New, “if they don’t want to support this initiative it is going to be difficult for Desertec.”
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I think it is struggling to find a reason to continue – it is clear it’s lost it’s original purpose, it is looking for a new direction”
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It seems some governments share this reluctance to go forward.
One of the first concrete steps that Desertec announced was a plan to build three solar power plants in Morocco. A declaration of intent was due to be signed recently by a group of countries including Spain and Italy. But the Spanish government demurred, citing difficulties in finding the subsidies the project would need.
Hans-Josef Fell is a Green party MP in the German parliament who has sponsored renewable energy legislation. He’s sometimes referred to as the father of the feed-in tariff that has helped wind and solar power succeed in Germany. He thinks the Desertec initiative is too reliant on public subsidies.
“The governments get cold feet for one reason, Desertec needs too much support in tax money – all the public budgets are over borrowed – and tax money is not easily available,” Mr Fell said.
Desertec says that these are small problems and will not detract from the overall success of the project.