"I have a fear of these mega-projects, because they are not very much suitable to the local communities. ... We have our own [energy] needs in our country. Maybe we need different mixes from you?" he pointed out to German scientists.
El Mously was one of a handful of skeptical attendees at the DESY conference who raised questions about things like who will own and the land on which Desertec-connected solar plants are built, and who cautioned that the entire venture smacked of European colonization. Others argued that if European companies really want to help Africa, the energy should instead flow to desperately needy parts of the continent.
"Many Africans are skeptical," said Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe, who coordinates the African Network for Solar Energy.
"[Europeans] make promises, but at the end of the day, they bring their engineers, they bring their equipment, and they go. It's a new form of resource exploitation just like in the past," Egbe said. "Desertec is a good idea. I'm not saying it's not a good idea. But knowing how the multinationals exploit in such countries, we have reason to be skeptical."
Desertec supporters are at once aggressively defensive and evasive. Twice during panel discussions in Hamburg, Knies rose to vigorously defend Desertec and Europe's intentions in the Middle East. But when El Mously posed a question to scientists on one panel about whether Egypt might benefit more from smaller and decentralized solar projects, a moderator pleaded with the crowd to avoid "anti-Desertec" comments and keep such questions to personal dinnertime conversations.
Yet Desertec continued to be a magnet for questions. Even some who support the plan -- like Amin Mobarak, a professor of mechanical engineering at Egypt's Cairo University who noted that North Africa's solar energy potential equals 1 million barrels of oil annually -- remained somewhat guarded and cautious.
More work and time needed
Desertec, Mobarak said, "needs a lot of time." And some things, like high-voltage transmission lines, can't be built without Europe's help. But, he said, "I believe it will benefit the people of the MENA region if they build these solar energy projects at least 80 percent local. If they build the industry here, they are generating jobs."
And professor Amr Amin, dean of engineering at Egypt's Helwan University, proposed the development of an E.U.-MENA solar energy center of excellence to exchange research. He recommended developing a blueprint of priorities that benefit both European and North African countries such as Egypt, which boasts the world's first solar thermal power plant and has attracted billions in solar and wind development in the past decade.
"We don't want the MENA region to just be importing technology," Amin said. "We have factories."
Gretchen Kalonji, assistant director-general of the UNESCO office of natural sciences, said Desertec leaders clearly have more work to do in convincing the North African public.
"They've obviously done a lot of consultation with the scientific communities. I think it's going to be critical to get more input from broader society."
The criticisms aren't lost on Desertec officials, and most said they know they have more work to do in gaining public acceptance. "I think that it is very important," Miled said. "It's not a technical matter. We need to avoid all the mistakes of the last decades."
Nevertheless, he, Knies and other supporters said they have little doubt that North Africa will turn to solar, that transmission lines will get built across the Mediterranean and that both Europe and parts of the Middle East will be powered by the sun's energy.
"I'm very optimistic about it, because I see so many different political forces lining up to help this thing," said the World Bank's Walters. If Europe shows a willingness to open its green energy markets and industrialized countries follow through with serious climate finance dollars to help get technology to cost, he said, "I think there's a combination of circumstances that help move this forward."