Business, Finance & Economics

Harnessing North Africa's solar power

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Morrocan market. (Image: Flickr user c.hug (cc: by-nc-sa))

Europe and North Africa are divided by more than the Mediterranean Sea. They're also divided by politics and economies. Wealthy stable Europe on one side, and poor and more fractious North Africa on the other. But what if there was a way to start knitting economies and societies of the two more tightly together? And what if they key to that was solar energy? A group of European businesses is pursuing such a vision through what will be the world's most ambitious solar energy project.

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"The World's" Gerry Hadden filed this report from Morocco.

Energy experts estimate that the deserts of the world receive enough solar radiation in six hours to power all of human civilization for a year. The problem has always been how to harness that potential.

Friedrich Fuehr, a spokesman for the Desertec Project says together Europe and North Africa are now well positioned to start to pull it off, "Because we have such a high energy need in Europe and we are pretty advanced with the technologies, so it is a good way of cooperate between the sun belt and the technology belt of the world."

Here's how it's supposed to work: Imagine, from the deserts of Western Morocco to Saudi Arabia, a chain of concentrating solar power, or CSP plants. CSP uses mirrors to focus sunlight, boil water and generate steam, and the steam powers electric generators. That's actually the simple part. The CSP technology is well established. The trick is getting all this power to Europe. The plan is to lay transmission lines under the Mediterranean, at an estimated cost of more than half a trillion dollars.

Fuehr says the initial costs are high, but after mass production starts, the system will be very affordable -- even for other regions of the world, including North Africa itself, where despite the sunlight bonanza, solar power is nearly nonexistent. Backers hope the Desertec idea will help kick start a booming regional industry.

On the roof of Morocco's State Energy headquarters in Casablanca, Moussawi Abdel Hakim gives a tour of what he says is Africa's first grid-connected photo-voltaic power plant. It went online two years ago. Its panels produce barely enough energy for 50 homes.

"From a technical point of view in Morocco, we're behind the times," Hakim said [in French]. "But our universities are now developing master's programs in renewable energy, so I think in two or three years we'll be covering our needs."

The hope is that such programs will eventually be able to cover the manpower needs of a project the size of Desertec as well. Backers claim Desertec will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in North Africa, but if the region can't turn up the engineers and technicians, those jobs will go to Europeans, leaving North Africa empty handed. This would be a particular blow in Morocco, where unemployment among the young is over 30 percent. Protests by the unemployed, like the one in Rabat, are common.

One university student, named Isham, says they're asking the government for jobs, but he says he'd be just as happy if the private sector steps in first.

"If this Desertec project brings jobs for us then it can't be bad," said Isham [in French].

Just who gets the jobs will play out over time, and the challenges go beyond cost and expertise. Some Europeans worry that political instability makes North Africa an unreliable energy partner.

But Moroccan political analyst Husseimi Taj Eddine, says Desertec itself will help stabilize the region, "We know all these countries are only going their first steps toward democracy and good governance, but the principal need for European countries to go against this wave of dictatorship is to invest in such projects."

Another concern is terrorism, which is a threat throughout North Africa, but Desertec’s Friedrich Fuehr points out that the decentralized network would be tough to target, "Even in case of a terror attack, we have to attack then 20 lines at the same time, and even if that happens it's only 15 percent of the energy demand in Europe."

Fifteen percent of Europe's demand. But what of North Africa's? Morocco for instance imports 97 percent of its energy, all in the form of fossil fuels.

Moussawi Abdel Hakim of Morocco's energy company, says the key to selling Desertec here, lies in giving North Africans first crack at any electricity their sunlight produces.

"There's a way to set Desertec up so that we benefit, once we've covered say 30-35 percent of our needs then we can export to Europe," said Hakim [in French].

European investors might baulk at that scenario. But for now both sides seem to be indulging somewhat in their own win/win scenarios. The generally positive response to Desertec here is due in part to the nature of the sun itself. It is after all inexhaustible, and unlike other natural resources, abundant in parts of Africa, such as oil or diamonds. You can't withhold it or steal it, so there's little suspicion of old fashioned colonialism.

A young man named Mustapha sums it up with a bit of light-hearted irony. He's selling phone cards on a Rabat street corner, on a baking hot day.

"The sun belongs to everybody," he jokes [in Arabic]. "I don't mind if foreigners come for it, just as long as they leave us the shade."

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