HAMBURG, Germany -- Twenty-five years after Gerhard Knies conceived of powering Europe with the Sahara Desert's sun, the North Africa Solar project has grown into something considerably more than a mere mirage, but it's still less than a reality.
Part of the plan is to erect a network of solar plants that generate electricity by concentrating the heat from sunlight to make electricity, generating 100 gigawatts or the equivalent of 100 large nuclear power plants. Another part is to develop a grid of high-voltage transmission lines that can carry the power from Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria to power-hungry markets in Europe.
The overall plan has already attracted billions of dollars in investments from blue-chip German companies and the World Bank as well as palpable excitement among supporters. They see it as a way to fight climate change, help Europe meet its renewable energy targets and create badly needed jobs in troubled Middle Eastern countries.
But the estimated €400 billion ($566 billion), 40-year endeavor also has invited critics who question whether the region is politically stable enough for such development, and whether it's wise to create a new dependence on another source of energy from the Middle East. Others doubt the project will bring lasting benefits to North Africa. They see it as a repeat of resource exploitation -- albeit "green" exploitation -- on the African continent.
Knies is now the energetic and at times defiant chairman of the board of trustees of the Desertec Foundation, which is pushing the plan. He is eager to implement the solar vision he first developed in the wake of the horrific Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Then a particle physicist at Hamburg's Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), Knies said the 1986 disaster prompted him to calculate how much energy the sun can deliver to the world.
"I thought to myself, 'Are we really so stupid that we put such things in our world that we cannot control? Just for some little comfort?'" he said.
From Chernobyl to Fukushima to Desertec?
Sitting in a tent drinking coffee at DESY during a recent conference on North Africa's clean energy prospects, Knies argued that climate change and the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan -- which turned countries like his native Germany away from nuclear as a low-carbon option -- are lending new urgency to the current, more elaborate version of the plan. He roundly rejected any challenges to Desertec's motives or ability to help North Africa, arguing that criticisms of the solar project are unfounded.
"This is not a European invention," Knies said, noting that the solar initiative was designed by 15 European scientists and 25 scientists from the Middle East and North Africa.
"The Desertec project came from the region ... and it will be to the benefit of these countries," he said. Beyond the jobs and economic development he sees for troubled countries like Egypt and Tunisia, Knies argued that Europe and the Middle East have "a common goal. We do not want a climate that is out of control."
If the Desertec plan works, it could provide 15 percent of Europe's electricity needs and help the continent achieve its target of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. Backers believe North Africa is one of the best places in the world for concentrated solar power (CSP), largely because of vast tracts of unused land that are in close proximity to road networks and transmission grids. With solar resources in North Africa about 20 to 30 percent higher than in Europe, according to supporters, the difference more than makes up for the added transportation costs to get the electricity to Europe.
Meanwhile, a World Bank study has found that while, at the moment, all the electronic components would be imported into North Africa, by 2030, the region would see a mix of pure local production and local production with international firms. The region could create about 80,000 jobs in construction services and manufacturing if it can produce between 5 and 7 gigawatts of electricity. Already, a 500-megawatt solar concentration plant in Morocco's movie capital of Ouarzazate is under way that could become Desertec's first testing ground.