€400bn energy plan to harness African sun

It's decision day on a chain of solar generators across the desert that could supply a quarter of Europe's power

The world's most ambitious green energy project is about to take shape. It is a plan for a chain of mammoth sun-powered energy plants in the deserts of North Africa to supply power to Europe's homes and factories by the end of the next decade.

In a few days' time a consortium of 20 German firms will meet in Munich to hammer out plans for funding the giant €400bn (£343bn) project, named Desertec. The scheme is being backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government and several German industry household names including Siemens, Deutsche Bank, and the energy companies RWE and E.ON. The Munich meeting will also involve Italian and Spanish energy concerns, as well as representatives from the Arab League and the Club of Rome think-tank.

Energy experts have calculated that Desertec could meet at least 15 per cent of Europe's needs, and be up and running by 2019. By 2050, they estimate the contribution could be between 20 and 25 per cent. Although no host countries have been named, Desertec envisages a string of solar-thermal plants across North Africa's desert. The plants would use mirrors to focus the sun's rays, which would be used to heat water to power steam turbines. The process is cheaper and more efficient than the usual form of solar power, which uses photovoltaic cells to convert the sun's rays into electricity.

The project also envisages setting up a new super grid of high-voltage transmission lines from the Mahgreb desert to Europe. Hans Müller-Steinhagen, of German Aerospace, has researched the project for the German government. He said that although the idea behind the scheme had been around for several years, investors had been deterred by the high costs of setting up the infrastructure.

Professor Müller-Steinhagen said that similar projects have been operating in the American West for years, but these had failed to gain the appropriate recognition. "Solar thermal power plants were built in California and Nevada, but people lost interest in them because fossil fuels became unbeatably cheap," he said.

Until now, projects of Desertec's scale have failed to get off the ground because of the huge problems involved in delivering electricity to consumers hundreds of miles away. The main stumbling block is that the further electricity is transported, the more is lost. However, Siemens claims that it has come up with a solution. Alfons Benziger, a spokesman for the engineering giant which has been involved in the construction of major hydro-power plants in India and China, said: "We have developed so-called high-voltage direct current energy transmission. This can transport energy over long distances without heavy losses. We use the process at the power plants in India and China."

Andree Böhling, an energy expert for Greenpeace Germany, has heaped praise on Desertec: "The initiative is one of the most intelligent answers to the world's environmental and industrial problems," he said. Munich Re, meanwhile, which insures major insurance companies across the globe, was persuaded to invest in the project after seeing a steady rise in the number of claims the company had to meet as a result of climate-change-induced damage.

Yet Germany's largest solar energy company, SolarWorld, argues that North Africa is too risky a location. "Building solar power plants in politically unstable countries opens you to the same kind of dependency as the situation with oil," said Frank Asbeck, the firm's managing director.

Other critics claim that by singling out comparatively poor North African countries as a location for a sophisticated European solar energy project amounts to a form of "solar imperialism". Lars Josefsson, the head of the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, has also rejected the idea because of a potential risk of terrorist attacks. However Desertec supporters, including the German conservative politician Friedbert Pflüger, argue that a far greater threat is posed by the prospect of nuclear power plants being subjected to such attacks. He points out that a number of nuclear reactors are scheduled to be built in North Africa – Egypt alone plans to build five. Mr Pflüger claims that the risk of politically motivated Russian-style energy stoppages by host countries could be avoided if the solar grid has enough supply channels.

But he warns that politics is likely to be the main stumbling block. "It's not Europe that will decide whether the desert can be used as an energy resource, but the countries of North Africa," he said last week. "So far these countries have either not been involved in the dialogue at all or only at a very limited level."

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