Over the past month, the union has gone through what amounts to a relaunch, with environmental meetings in Paris late last month and a summit in Milan this week. The Paris meetings really began movement on the solar project, said Marc Strauss, who coordinates the solar plan for France's Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and the Sea.
"Now it's time to study the projects," Strauss said, adding that the plan had generated between 100 and 150 proposals.
All the Arab states attended the Paris meetings, and Egypt, in particular, has been a strong supporter. According to Egyptian officials, this is because for the first time, in a Mediterranean detente, Europeans are treating African and Middle Eastern countries as equal partners. This is best seen in the union's co-presidency, which Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak share.
Also attending the Milan summit was Sweden's energy minister, Maud Olofsson. While it would at first seem odd for Sweden to attend the summit, it is an indication of the hybrid beast the Union for the Mediterranean has become.
Though the union was originally designed by Sarkozy as a "Club Med" limited to countries around the sea, many European countries, especially Germany, objected to what could become an eventual E.U. competitor. Conceding to these concerns, the union was launched with all E.U. countries as members. Sweden holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, hence its presence at Milan.
In fact, according to analysts, nuclear-powered France does not have nearly as much to gain in the energy sector from solar development in North Africa. Far more important to Sarkozy are the climate benefits and the influence a successful union could give his country.
Perhaps because the French have acted as facilitators, a virtue of the union's solar plan is that it makes clear that renewable energy will be developed in the south primarily for domestic purposes and only partly for European exports, said Houda Allal, the strategic director of OME, an umbrella organization for Mediterranean energy companies.
"This is a prerequisite," Allal said. The Mediterranean solar plan "is very clear on that. Desertec has improved itself in that area, but they're not convincing yet."
Hobohm added, "This is not a good solution if we send German or whatever companies down there and they do it all alone. We need joint ventures between European and Arabic-speaking countries."
Such large-scale investment could be a huge boon to structurally weak countries in North Africa and could also give countries like Algeria an economic path after their hydrocarbon resources flag.
At its rosiest, the solar projects might even bridge gaps among the non-E.U. countries of the region, Hobohm said. About two decades ago, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya pledged to create an economic union, yet trade between them remains the lowest of any region in the world.
By stimulating energy trade, the Union for the Mediterranean hopes to bring about deeper dialogue. There is a model for this: The European Union evolved from a treaty in 1950 that created a common market for coal.
Solar thermal plants are already being built in Morocco, Egypt and Algeria. The problem is, Allal said, "they are taking too much time to come into force."
That highlights the remaining question for these solar dreams: money.
"We will need some kind of fixed tariff for the electricity that will be produced in Northern Africa," Hobohm said. Solar thermal plants remain expensive, costing 20 to 25 cents a kilowatt-hour of electricity produced, while gas or coal costs 4 to 5 cents.
Costs for solar thermal could eventually come down to about 10 cents a kilowatt-hour as the technology scales up, said the Center for Global Development's Wheeler, who has written an influential paper on the topic.
If carbon prices were as high as officials hoped they would be when the European Union established its carbon cap-and-trade system, solar thermal would likely already be viable. However, while the price of carbon remains low, additional stimulus will be needed, said Knies, the German physicist.
If the solar plants were built purely for domestic purposes, it would be difficult for countries like Egypt to establish feed-in tariffs, which would guarantee higher pricing rates for solar projects. Germany was able to justify the tariffs by routing the money to industry; no similar technology giants exist in Africa or the Middle East.
Hobohm would like to see a E.U.-wide feed-in tariff established that would guarantee African and Middle Eastern energy companies set rates for their electricity exports. At the least, countries with existing programs like Germany and Spain should open up their systems to importers, Knies said. Spain, so close to Morocco, is an obvious candidate.
It would be a "kind of a global justice" for Europeans to support these renewable projects, Knies said, since it was European reliance on fossil fuels that both brought the region great prosperity and exacerbated climate change.
In return, the European-spurred renewable projects could "set off a whole round of industrialization in North Africa," Wheeler said.
First in this industrialization line could be Morocco, which has an existing, if weak, electrical connection with Spain; its neighbors have no route into the European grid. Morocco's government has announced a $1 billion fund to support renewable energy and hopes to pass a law in September to create a framework for renewable cooperation.
Other funding vehicles are also being set up. Egypt's finance minister, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, has proposed an InfraMed Fund, which would be privately funded and managed, his officials say. The fund would separate financing for energy projects from the budgets of member countries, granting more year-to-year stability.
The World Bank has shown interest in North African solar thermal projects, according to Wheeler, and it is now considering whether to support a 1-gigawatt project with its clean technology fund. Such a project could cost up to $8 billion, with a possible $750 million in World Bank support. The bank is scheduled to look at the proposal in October.
The benefits of such technical assistance should not be underestimated, Hobohm said.
"Cooperation brings along an interest on both sides to stabilize the relationship," Hobohm said. "This would be a good symbol to the Islamic world. ... This is a common project. Let us do some clean business here."
Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500