Desertec lowers export forecast

The Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) has identified enormous potential for renewables in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), but tones down forecasts for exports to Europe.

MENA countries plan to build up to 50GW of wind, PV and concentrating solar power (CSP) by 2020, for which the DII study Desert Power: Getting Started has made concrete proposals on appropriate sites.

The region has a potential for more than 800GW of wind and solar across 40,000sq km, according to the study, which will be officially presented in Brussels today.

“The countries of North Africa and the Middle East will ultimately meet their rapidly growing electricity needs with renewable energy,” Desertec chief executive Paul van Son said at a press briefing in Berlin yesterday.

Those plans could be carried out even without financial support, as only projects representing “low-hanging fruits” are included, but political and regulatory barriers are impeding a rapid development of the plans, Van Son complains.

To get private companies to invest heavily in renewables, better land-use regulations, secure access to power grids, transparent approval procedures and the availability of high-quality meteorological data are paramount, the study emphasises.

One priority should be the completion of the Mediterranean power circuit with back-to-back HVDC lines, together with one or two initial intercontinental power lines between North Africa and Europe for exporting energy from reference projects, Desertec says.

Van Son envisages a €1.2bn ($1.58bn) link between Tunisia and Italy as the most realistic first option (an alternative link between Morocco and Spain is in effect being blocked by the Spanish government).

Late last year DII had to postpone the announcement of a political framework deal between Morocco and several EU countries over a 150MW CSP plant in Morocco that was supposed to be Desertec’s first “reference project” and should have exported green electricity to Europe.

The project counted on political and financial support from Germany, but Spain - in the wake of its financial crisis - has an “extreme overcapacity” of electricity, Van Son says, and has put the project on the back burner.

Morocco has instead pushed ahead with construction of the 160MW first phase of the Ouarzazate CSP plant, which won’t export power and has no direct link to Desertec.

Also, France is in effect blocking a better grid link across the Pyrenees, as Portugal’s energy secretary told Recharge this year. That renders the export of renewables to Northern Europe even more difficult, no matter whether from the Iberian Peninsula or Morocco.

“Europe should build the infrastructure to benefit from cheap RE from the MENA region,” Van Son said, adding that politicians in Europe are “sleeping” and lack a “sense of urgency" about the matter.

DII also expects that MENA - where power demand is surging by 5-9% a year - will use most of its own new renewables. Although earlier studies had seen a potential for desert power to provide 20% of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050, Desertec now thinks 10% is more realistic.

Renewables could account for 55% of the common electricity mix from MENA and Europe combined by 2030, 80% by 2040 and 90% by 2050, the study reckons. But it also identifies the need for up to €390bn in support mechanisms to fund the transition to renewables in the two regions between 2020 and 2050.

A gigantic sum, but Desertec compares that with the €412bn in global fossil-fuel subsidies in 2011.