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What the Arab Spring Could Mean for Solar in the Sahara

Will the unrest in the Arab world put massive solar projects like Desertec on hold or actually usher in a new era of clean energy?

For the past couple of years, a group called the Desertec Foundation has been ambitiously promoting the potential of harnessing clean, renewable energy—mostly solar power—from the world's vast deserts. "Within 6 hours deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes within a year," offers Dr. Gerhard Knies, a German physicist and member of the Desertec's Supervisory Board.

Their most famous proposal is to power most of Europe through captured across northern Africa and the Middle East. Here's a way oversimplified take: high voltage direct current (HVDC) power lines would shuttle the electricity from a network of massive solar installations (mostly concentrated solar plants, which I've described before) across the Sahara and the Middle East to refrigerators and light bulbs and car charging stations in Europe, where demand is massive.

In this short video Knies explains the basic concept. Though it's a few years old at this point, the overall mission of Desertec remains pretty much the same.


If you'd like more background, this five-minute video gets into more details.


And here's a map of the proposal, fully realized. For a larger version, check out the DESERTEC Foundation's site.

While it may look and sound at first like a grandiose vision, the Desertec Industrial Initiative, which is partnering on planning efforts, is loaded with very serious players like Deutsche Bank, Siemens, IBM, HSBC, and Munich Re, the world's largest insurer.

After the revolution in Egypt, I wondered if a new democracy would look to harness the solar potential of the Sahara, as the production of oil—lifeblood of the region for so long—is on the fast decline. Or, conversely, would the unrest put projects like Desertec on hold?

A recent article in Der Spiegel sounds optimistic, boasting that the "Arab Spring Boosts Dream of Desert Power." It quotes Kirsten Westphal, an energy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), saying, "Many critics are saying that the Desertec project is dead because of the unrest in the region. But I would say the exact opposite is true." Westphal believes that open democracies and increased stability provide a much better foundation for massive infrastructure and development projects like this.

But digging into the details, Desertec still feels tenuous. Setting aside the fact that the politics are still far from stable, there's a bigger hurdle the project must overcome. That is the widespread belief that the project is yet another example of neocolonialism. Here come the Europeans trying to exploit us for another resource.

To me, it seems absolutely essential that the Desertec Foundation reach out as soon as possible—and as soon as they're in place—to both sitting leaders and to new party leaderships in Egypt, Tunisia, and throughout the region, and immediately bring them into the fold. The foundation will point to a public forum planned for November in Cairo as evidence that they're engaging the region, but the integration has to be deeper still. Companies must be formed in the countries hosting the installations, and the benefit to the Arab and North African public has to be immediate and crystal clear.

Desertec is one of those rare projects that is both somehow practical and realistic, while also offering a clean energy solution commensurate with the scale of the climate challenge. It's massively ambitious and incredibly exciting. And it probably doesn't stand a chance if business and political leaders in North Africa and the Middle East aren't immediately involved with the planning and execution.

If built, it could provide economic growth and stability to nascent democracies that are desperate for both. And it would go a long way in ensuring the ultimate well-being of the rest of us from outside the region as well.

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