It's an ambitious undertaking which the German and international companies are going to launch today with the Desertec project. Until 2019, the project may be running and generate 15% of Europe's electricity needs. Until 2050 this could be enlarged to 20-25% of its needs.
If it works, the project could have remarkable political implications and benefit the world in three ways: Firstly, a successful project shows the maturity of renewable energy sources vis-à-vis conventional energy. In a first instance, it will allow Northern Africa and Europe to reduce their emissions, to preserve their environment and to export the successes of the project to the rest of the world. This takes away excuses from polluting countries to rely on carbon emitters and exerts pressure on reluctant governments and enterprises to change their policies as well. The success of the project can thereby bring a greater change in mentality than the catchphrases uttered by our heads of state at the G8.
Secondly, the investment by European companies not only benefits the climate, but it is also a tremendous help in African development. The security of a long-term investment and the need for skilled Northern African engineers and workers bring more knowledge and more purchasing power into the region. Other than development aid which has to travel through governments, the Desertec project directly benefits the local economies and stabilizes life for the citizens. Meanwhile, the international prestige of the project may force governments to support Desertec rather than to take the blame for failure. Whether this will also lead to more pressure for democratic governance...we will see.
Thirld, I think that the project and the economic boost given to the region will make other African countries want to take a piece of the cake. The southern line of the electricity grid runs far into the continent and could feed energy into sub-Saharan energy systems. Likewise, I am hoping that Desertec will incite more investment and research in solar technology in sub-Saharan countries. This can lead them to become energy self-sufficient and carbon-neutral in the long run.
However, the project also has enemies. The strongest one is the French nuclear lobby which would love to see French nuclear power stations rather than German solar panels in Morocco. After the recent quarries of Germany and France over the right way out of the financial crisis (Germany: budget cuts, France: deficit spending), I wonder in how far this new controversy will hamper the Franco-German friendship.
A second problem is the insecurity about the political development in Northern Africa. While Morocco has come closer to a base-democracy, Algeria and Tunesia still have de facto autocratic structures and Libya even more so. Critics - many of them Germans - would love to see the Desertec investment stalled until a functioning political administration can definitely be ensured. Yet, these critics don't consider the importance of an economic investment itself for stability in the region.
Overall, the project is definitely a milestone. Ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in December, this is good news and a success for the defenders of the environment. The project will certainly meet controversy in future, but if it works the success will radiate across the world.
Here are two more soundbites about it, both in German unfortunately:
Short one (5 minutes, Tagesschau.de)
Long one (18 minutes, Deutschlandfunk)