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Defending the Desertec dream

It's now almost two years since the collapse of the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), an ambitious €400bn joint venture that aimed to develop the renewable energy resources of the Sahara desert for mass export to Europe. Although the Desertec Foundation – the non-profit group who developed the original idea and helped to established Dii as an industrial implementing body – continues to exist as a separate entity, the name of Desertec has become synonymous with wild ambition, Icarusian hubris, and utopian naivety.

Indeed, the high-profile failure of Dii has caused some to doubt that large-scale solar export from the Maghreb to Europe is even possible. Perhaps regretting their pre-Copenhagen enthusiasm for such high-ambition climate projects, several energy analysts have turned against the very idea of trading renewable energy across borders. And yet, despite some not-inconsiderable challenges, 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. 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 harnessed to provide reliable, affordable power for the countries of North Africa, bringing energy security, economic opportunity, and perhaps even a measure of political stability to the troubled region. Furthermore, surplus solar 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.

The case for Saharan solar is clear, and has already begun to attract serious investment. Both Morocco and Tunisia have launched ambitious plans to rapidly develop large scale wind and solar facilities, with an eye for European export, and are already pressing ahead on construction projects. Furthermore, 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 vision has seemingly stalled in the sand. Dii failed to attract enough government support or raise 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 was long on rhetoric and short on concrete policy action. This discouraged private firms from stumping up cash for solar export projects. Greater regulatory support and political commitment could well have reassured a sceptical industry and unlocked much-needed private investment. Yet 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 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.

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 2014 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 vision on the scale of the Desertec project – now more than ever.

Ben Martin - Editor

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