x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Desertec project puts spotlight on Mena region

Desertec, the ambitious plan to turn Middle East sunshine into clean energy to be exported to Europe, is now looking closely at the energy needs of the Middle East and North Africa region.

The Ain Beni Mathar solar power station near Oujda in Morocco. The Arab League is studying the prospect of clean energy exports to Europe. Abdelhak Senna / AFP
The Ain Beni Mathar solar power station near Oujda in Morocco. The Arab League is studying the prospect of clean energy exports to Europe. Abdelhak Senna / AFP

Desertec, the ambitious plan to turn Middle East sunshine into clean energy to be exported to Europe, is now looking closely at the energy needs of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region.

At the same time, the Arab League has woken up to the potential of alternative energy, and is studying the prospect of energy exports to Europe.

Three years after its founding, and in the midst of the European financial crisis, the Desertec initiative has yet to lead to a single solar plant in the Middle East.

Instead Dii, the partnership of companies and finance houses behind Desertec, which aims to promote the use of solar and wind in North Africa in particular, was left reeling from the twin blows of losing industrial backers, and seeing Spanish government support for projects in Morocco withdrawn.

The German companies Siemens and Bosch left the group after the infrastructure giant Siemens closed down its solar operations. European countries, engulfed in the sovereign debt crisis, are cutting their commitments to renewable energy.

But the grand vision of providing European support in exchange for vast flows of green energy from across the Mediterranean is not imperilled, said Paul van Son, the Dii chief executive. "The financial troubles of European countries is not very helpful for long-term investment, but since we're in a very preparatory phase it's difficult to see what the impact is," said Mr van Son. Desertec will also benefit from a rethink, as the original nexus of European technology and Middle Eastern energy is being recast.

"Three years ago the initial Desertec presentation was a little Europe-centric," said Mr van Son. "We've rephrased it: the local economy can be based on power from the wind and the sun, and they can export to Europe.

"They can produce much more than their own demand."

Renewable energy has not featured high on the agenda of governments in the region in the past. But ever-increasing demand for electricity and a natural gas squeeze are changing the economic parameters of power generation, and decision-makers are waking up to the huge potential of solar power in particular, and the falling cost trajectory of the technology.

Maghreb countries such as Morocco have started working on renewables projects, and both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have stated solar ambitions. Saudi Arabia, which is forced to burn increasing amounts of crude oil in its power plants, is planning to generate 37 gigawatts of electricity from solar sources by 2035.

"The Desertec concept is undergoing change. The more realistic version now also includes support for the countries in the Mena region to actually develop their renewable sources and support their own energy mix with renewables," said Adnan Amin, the director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency, an organisation founded to foster the development of the sector.

Catering for domestic demand does not leave future exports of green electricity dead in the water, and the Arab League is already studying the potential money spinner.

Core to the concept is the establishment of export channels, with grid connections via Turkey, the Strait of Gibraltar and Italy all constituting possible routes.

fneuhof@thenational.ae