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‘Too Expensive, Too Utopian’: Desertec Abandons Sahara Solar Export Dream


The Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) has abandoned its strategy to export solar power generated from the Sahara to Europe, killing hopes of boosting the continent’s share of renewable electricity with cheap external supplies.

In a telephone interview with EurActiv, Dii CEO Paul van Son admitted that the project’s initial export-focus represented “one-dimensional thinking”.

Although the industrial alliance was set up to develop renewable energy supplies in the Maghreb to feed up to 20% of European electricity demand by 2050, Dii now concedes that Europe can provide for most of its needs indigenously.

“If we talk about renewable energy from North Africa, only a small fraction will ultimately supply the European market,” said van Son, adding that the European market could supply up to 90% of its own power demand.

“Frankly, four years ago Desertec was all about bringing energy from North Africa. We abandoned that one-dimensional thinking. It’s now more about creating integrated markets in which renewable energy will bring its advantages … That’s the main objective,” he said.

Desertec ‘too expensive and utopian’

Critics of Desertec questioned the viability of a project to generate 100GW by 2050 at a cost of €400 billion, and doubts multiplied when founding shareholder Siemens pulled out of the venture in November last year. In the same month, Dii failed to get the support of the financially-strapped Spanish government for a 500MW CSP demonstration project in Ouarzazate, Morocco, though the project is still going ahead.

“[Desertec] is not viable in its original form because it is too expensive and utopian. It attracted very little funding. It has essentially collapsed into more or less a bilateral deal,” argues Peter Droege, president of Eurosolar, an industry association.

European electricity players question Dii’s initial business model, arguing that its export-focus was incompatible with current levels of grid interconnectivity between the Maghreb and Europe, and within Europe itself. They add that the market is already struggling to absorb additional renewable energy capacity.

“At a very basic level, we are still missing lines and capacities for export,” according to Susanne Nies, head of Energy Policy and Generation at Eurelectric, the European electricity industry association.

“Spain is already struggling with its own excess renewables production – additional imports from third countries would certainly compound the problem,” she added.

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