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    Europe Wants Saharan Solar Power, but Morocco Called Dibs

    Written by

    Mat McDermott


    Photo: Christopher L/Flickr

    Desertec, the massively sprawling project to tap into the considerable potential to produce renewable energy in the Sahara Desert and then send it to Europe, just hit a big bump in the road. While European leaders have been counting on the project supplying 20 percent of the continent's power by 2050, Saharan countries want to keep their solar power for themselves.

    According to Deutsche Welle, after several highly publicized launches of large renewable energy programs across North Africa, the king of Morocco has just announced that his nation's first contribution, a concentrating solar power plant in Ouarzazate, will be producing electricity for Morocco, sending none to Europe. First announced in 2011, the 500 MW project will now go to chipping away at the 20 percent of electricity that Morocco has to import from its neighbors. 

    Indeed, the DW piece quotes Klaus Schmidtke from Dii (representative of the 20 shareholders in Desertec) as already shifting the context of the project from export-first to local-first. "The Desertec idea is that there is a lot of energy in the deserts that can be channeled for the benefit of those who need electricity," he said.

    It's a good bit of spin, considering that the original Desertec idea was solidly that the people who really need clean electricity are Europeans first—as the image below, still current as the concept document on the Desertec website, shows.While the deepest underlying concept behind Desertec isn't gone, it does certainly seem that the concept has firmly shifted to being more inward-looking. Meanwhile, Desertec has already revised its energy production estimates downward.

    Image: Desertec

    There's a certain techno-futuristic allure to piping solar energy from the Sahara into Europe via undersea transmission lines. But whether that clean power goes to Europe or to replace dirty power in North African nations first doesn't fully matter in a global context. Either way it's replacing carbon-spewing power plants or preventing their construction for added capacity. Providing for local needs before export needs is more in the spirit of ecological sustainability than does export-led renewable energy development with its air of neocolonialism (right or wrong as that may be). 

    Particularly interesting to me in this latest news is a presentation I attended back in 2009 at the Copenhagen Climate Congress that outlined several risk factors that could hold up any plan to generate renewable power in the Sahara and then send it to Europe.

    Among the points given were the incorrect perception that investing in renewable energy in North Africa is riskier than importing natural gas from places such as the former Soviet Union, the lack of coherent business plans in North African nations, and the lack of good policy in terms of actually feeding the North African electricity into the European grid, which is "really a collection of 27 different electricity systems," according to presenter Anthony Patt.

    That's all to say that the Desertec project is supremely ambitious, and I suppose the King of Morocco deciding his people's electricity needs come before those of Europeans isn't surprising considering the transcontinental infrastructure that still needs sussing out. More than that, it's notable that nowhere in that 2009 discussion of Desertec risk factors was there specifically a category for a North African nation standing up for its own domestic interests over those of exports.