The world's biggest solar project, the 400 billion (Dh1.79 trillion) Desertec initiative to bring electricity to Europe from the MENA region, is making headway despite its many sceptics. Just last week, a group of French companies said they were forming a consortium, Transgreen, to lay a network of high-voltage undersea power cables for the German-led project. The German industrial and engineering group Siemens, which is already part of Desertec, said it might also join Transgreen.
This month, the International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises industrialised countries on energy issues, said North Africa had the potential to become a significant exporter of electricity to Europe from solar power projects in the Sahara. The solar plants would harvest sunlight from fields of reflectors to boil water and drive steam turbines. The region's "high solar resource largely compensates for the additional cost of long transmission lines" beneath the Mediterranean Sea, the IEA said.
Solar energy could supply up to a quarter of the world's electricity by 2050, the agency projected in its recent analysis of the global solar-power market. Desertec aims to deliver 15 per cent of Europe's power requirements by 2050 as the EU seeks to reduce its carbon emissions, in part by reducing consumption of electricity generated by burning fossil fuels. MENA-region countries hoping to export power to Europe include Mediterranean nations such as Morocco and Algeria, and Saudi Arabia through a proposed hook-up between Saudi and Egyptian power grids.
"Renewables will have an important place in the total energy equation," Mohammed al Qahtani, the executive director of petroleum engineering and development at Saudi Aramco, told an energy conference in Houston this month. Saudi officials have announced plans to develop the kingdom's abundant solar resources for domestic electricity generation and water desalination projects. Eventually, they aim to develop excess power for export. They have also expressed interest in joining Desertec.
In March, Italy's Enel, Morocco's NAREVA, Spain's Red Electrica and France's Saint-Gobain Solar joined the Desertec Industrial Initiative, which is the Desertec development joint venture. Desertec's founding partners include a number of large German companies such as Siemens, the energy companies E.ON and RWE, the green energy specialist MAN Solar Millennium, and the financial and insurance heavyweights Deutsche Bank and Munich Re, among others.