For centuries, Mediterranean countries have found countless ways to disagree -- over religion, ethnicity, colonialism and trade. But there are signs the region might yet unite in pursuit of a common goal: renewable energy.
European government and industry have been eyeing tracts of sun-drenched, vacant land in North Africa and the Middle East for some time. And now, officials and business executives are beginning to sweat out the details that could see renewable power sprouting in the desert.
Their vision is ambitious. By 2050, massive solar thermal plants, which concentrate the sun's energy using mirrors to heat steam-generating media, would sprawl across the Sahara and Middle East, feeding most of their power to their host nations. Leftover energy, meanwhile, would travel north on a new €45 billion grid to meet 15 percent of Europe's electricity needs.
The technology to build the plants exists and industry is ready, if certain political conditions are met, said Gerhard Knies, a German physicist who has become the leading advocate for the solar thermal plans, which are projected to cost hundreds of billions of euros.
"Europe should be ready to financially support clean power provided by North Africa," Knies said. Europe will need reliable, always-on electricity in the future from renewable sources, and North Africa needs investment -- a win-win for both, he said.
"This is exactly the moment for this kind of thing," said David Wheeler, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Center for Global Development in Washington. The United States is gearing up for gigawatts of investment in solar thermal in the Southwest, he noted, and the same is being seen in Rajasthan, India, and in China.
"An area the size of Austria could power the entire world," Wheeler said. "We have room to spare out there. It's simply not a limited resource."
But when it comes to the Mediterranean, the enthusiasm of optimists like Knies and Wheeler must face cold political reality.
The most prominent support for desert solar has come from the Union for the Mediterranean, a troubled alliance launched last year by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Aimed at creating stronger economic ties in the region, the union announced as its premier project a Mediterranean solar plan that cribbed many ideas from Knies' proposals.
While Knies was elated for the support -- he had consulted with French officials in the winter beforehand -- he became troubled when the union came "to a grinding halt" after this winter's conflict in Gaza, which saw Israel invade the Gaza Strip in a campaign to halt rocket attacks from Hamas. The brief war resulted in up to 1,000 fatalities, mostly on the Palestinian side, and inflamed anti-Israeli sentiment across the region.
Seeking to keep momentum generated by the Union for the Mediterranean announcement, Knies approached Munich Re, a massive German insurance company that has been troubled by increased liability claims it has seen from natural disasters. Once the insurer signed on, German industry followed.
That collaboration led to the announcement last week of the Desertec Industrial Initiative, which made waves with the blue-chip names supporting it: Siemens, Deutsche Bank, ABB and others.
In its planning document, the initiative's companies make clear that if a suitable political framework exists, they are ready to invest in North Africa now.
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For any private money to flow into North Africa, certain political hurdles must be cleared, said Jens Hobohm, an energy consultant at the German firm Prognos.
"One of the obstacles obviously is that the political framework in the countries is not ready yet to adopt larger amounts of solar power," Hobohm said.
Desertec has called for a single, unified market across the region, allowing a consumer in Germany to purchase power from Algeria.
The Union for the Mediterranean remains the most likely actor to set up such a framework, Knies said, and while it does not yet have a permanent headquarters or director, the union has established working groups on how to create the regulations needed for the exchange of large flows of energy.