DESERTEC: How could Africa's sun improve European Energy Security ?

Posted in Energy Security , Other | 29-Jul-10 | Author: Philipp Brix

"DESERTEC: a project to install solar power plants in the Middle East and Northern African desert and export the energy…
"DESERTEC: a project to install solar power plants in the Middle East and Northern African desert and export the energy produced to provide some of Europe's Electricity"

Energy Security for Europe has become a topic of growing concerns.

On June 21, 2010 the Russian government decided to cut the gas supply to Belarus. During the Ukraine gas crisis in 2006, Europe suffered from sudden gas scarcity because of similar shortages. Although this time there were no serious consequences for gas delivery to Western European states, the urgent need for diversification and stabilization of the European energy supply became apparent once more.

In addition to political factors, the natural scarcity of fossil fuels like Russian gas or Middle Eastern oil is a driver of change for the European Energy Security Strategy. An EU Green Paper and the trans-European energy network strategy both contain suggestions for an intelligent combination of energy sources and distribution for the next thirty years. Shortages in gas delivery will be reduced by pipeline projects like Nabucco, providing Europe with Caspian Sea gas without crossing Russian territory, or NordStream, a direct gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that avoids problematic transit states.

Despite these actions to reduce gas delivery risks, the general problem of energy diversification requires exploitation of alternative energy sources. Without this, European states will not be able to reduce their dependency on dwindling fossil fuel resources. Energy security strategies require a shift in power generation, and the worldwide climate change debate adds pressure to the issue.

Europe's challenge today is to develop the right mixture of energy sources for the next 30 to 40 years, the period most experts believe necessary to fully develop and establish comprehensive alternative energy production.

Facing that challenge, German and French companies have discovered something originally developed by the Club of Rome: DESERTEC, a project to install solar power plants in the Middle Eastern and Northern African deserts and export the energy produced to provide some of Europe's Electricity.

There is currently a consortium of twelve European companies kicking off the project with an investment of 400 billion Euros. Implementing this project would allow Europe to address three strategic issues simultaneously:

1. Dependency on the fossil fuels oil and gas, and on the countries supplying them

2. Climate change issues

3. Strengthening partnerships with Middle Eastern states and North Africa, so promoting regional stability

The European Union needs to diversify its energy supplies to be prepared for international climate protection agreements and to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and Arabian Gulf oil. Difficult partnerships with the Middle East and North Africa, and problems of economic and social instability in these countries, could endanger the European Union through terrorism or refugee outflows.

The analysis of DESERTEC within this strategic context is based on the document

'Clean Power from Deserts - White Book' and 'Green Paper - A European Strategy for Sustainable, Competitive and Secure Energy'.

The DESERTEC Foundation was set up by the German division of the Club of Rome

in cooperation with the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation Network (TREC) and the German Aerospace Center.

European Energy Strategy

The European Union published its strategic position on energy supply in the 2006 Green Paper. Sustainability, competitiveness and security are outlined as the three core elements of the envisioned development. The core reason for the EU's energy concerns is the conviction that energy supply, prices, and the external climate effects of power generation are critical to European citizens' living conditions.

Dependence on external energy suppliers are judged highly problematic. Without alternative sources, about 70% of European energy needs will be satisfied by non-EU countries within the next two or three decades. Some of these countries are unstable. Even today, half of the EU's gas consumption is supplied by Algeria, Norway and Russia (the most important supplier).

To address these problems directly, new energy partnerships - especially

with Russia - are on the agenda. The gas situation has been evaluated as critical, with a risk of sudden shortages like those experienced in recent years. Whilst increasing gas and oil stocks is seen as a small step to minimize that risk, general diversification of the energy portfolio is singled out as important. Wind, biomass, biofuel, hydrogen fuel cells, carbon capture or concentrated solar power are mentioned as options to help turn a one-sided fossil fuel dependency into a broad

power generation portfolio.

"Implementing DESERTEC on the current planned scale would definetely decreaese dependency on oil and gas"
"Implementing DESERTEC on the current planned scale would definetely decreaese dependency on oil and gas"
Further, new gas and oil pipelines connecting Europe with the Middle East and Northern Africa will be installed. With this diversification, the EU hopes to achieve two objectives besides reducing dependence on certain countries: strategic and technological leadership in alternative energy sources, and an effective weapon against climate change.

Sustainability and efficiency in energy production and use are established as necessary targets. The EU also underlines the importance of technological development leading to global leadership in energy solutions. The Green Paper proposes a regular Strategic EU Energy Review to track and evaluate the progress of technological development and practical employment of alternative energy.

Such an instrument of self-organization and control would enable the EU to integrate

energy issues with foreign relations. The Green Paper discusses how sustainability of energy supplies ties closely with economic stability, and calls for worldwide partnerships and a pan-European energy community. Concrete suggestions are continual dialogue with the world's most important energy consumers (China, India or the USA) and intensified relations with the Caspian region, North Africa and the Middle East by establishing new pipelines to diversify fossil fuel energy supply.

The report emphasises energy system interconnections with Africa, as is European support for establishment of energy infrastructures in developing countries. The Green Paper recommends influencing such states to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels as and help provide for European demand for those goods.

Ultimately, energy is identified as a key promoter of progress in less developed countries. To reach these goals and implement its plans, the EU must intervene with investments and subsidies in case of market failure.

Summarizing the EU energy supply strategy: besides securing access to fossil fuel sources, extensive use of renewable energy and development of technical competences will help achieve sustainability and security of supply. There is a close connection implied between energy supply development and the intensification of diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries through establishing energy partnerships.


Since the DESERTEC Foundation does not provide an official strategy for its

activities, the White Paper originally published in November 2007 is the only official, detailed source on the project and will be the basis for analyzing the organization and the project.

It is a concept paper on energy, water and climate security. Two key arguments for the implementation of DESERTEC introduce the paper: first, the recognition of climate change as a real threat and the need to decelerate it. Second, the outlook for global energy and water availability.

Climate is defined as a key natural resource, framing the conditions for energy supply

by the sun, water supply from the skies and food produced by plants. Recent changes in the world climate are are dealt with by reference to the Intergovernmental

Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Anthropogenic influences are taken for granted as the reasons for these changes. The paper therefore calls for global coordination of human behavior affecting climate change, and predicts the foreseeable changes in world climate will have significant socio economic consequences.

The paper suggests the development of solar energy supplies on a global scale as a long term solution for anthropogenic climate influences. The DESERTEC Foundation aims to establish pilot solar power plants in the deserts of North Africa (NA) and the Middle East (ME), which should transfer energy to the EU through high voltage cables and supply about 15% percent of the European energy mix by 2050.

The concept contains views on sustainable water and electricity generation for the 50 countries of the EUMENA region, also referring to the Foundation's view on global development of energy and water demand and availability as well as expected EUMENA region population growth. The foundation expects fresh water scarcity for both Southern European and MENA states, affecting agricultural food production

causing higher dependency on nutritional imports.

Some of the energy generated by the concentrated solar power (CSP) plants planned for MENA deserts should power salt water desalination programmes that could compensate for fading fresh water reserves. An increase in electricity demand and population is also expected. Whilst the European population should stabilize around 600 million, the population of MENA will double to 600 million by 2050. Global electricity demand is expected to triple by then.

Diversification of the energy generation portfolio is a necessary measure to deal with these challenges. The foundation mentions the Ukraine gas crisis as an example of the risks of non-diversification by Europe of energy supply. The solar power hitting just 1% of the earth's desert surface would be sufficient to satisfy annual world energy demand, the Foundation recommends implementation of the DESERTEC concept to both diversify the power generation portfolio and also provide new solutions for expanding regional energy demand within the EUMENA region.

The parallels with the European Strategy for Sustainable, Competitive and Secure Energy, with regards to diversification and security of energy supply, are explicitly noted. The paper suggests that in the long run the establishment of solar power generation could reduce the use and proliferation of nuclear power, and by that

affect security strategy issues.

The DESERTEC foundation paper is not a clearly focused strategic approach but a holistic plan to deal with world climate issues, energy supply problems, and regional

scarcities endangering socio-economic stability. The foundation states that a general shift in power generation is crucial in order to keep climate change within a manageable range of outcomes. It laments that solar power has not yet gained the popularity commensurate with its potential.

DESERTEC's Strategic Value

One should try to link EU ideas of a pan-European energy community to the structure of DESERTEC because that offers solutions to regional stability problems. Furthermore, solar power generation is certainly an answer to the EU's desire for diversification and sustainable, climate conserving means of energy production.

The EU recognizes the urgent need to diversify its power generation portfolio Because of the heavy dependency on gas from Algeria, Norway and Russia. In consequence, the EU wants to build an energy partnership with Russia. The logic behind this is strengthening the EU's position as major customer, thus securing the European gas supply (European Union, 2006).

Here, the DESERTEC foundation raises an argument obviously ignored by the EU: during the Ukraine gas crisis in 2006, the EU was already a major customer of Russian gas suppliers. Yet that did not help to prevent the experienced shortages in gas delivery. As long as the EU does not have real alternatives to Russian gas, it depends on that supply. An energy partnership with Russia will only be workable if implemented simultaneously with the establishment of new pipelines to the MENA region and progress towards technological diversification into solar power generation.

Whilst there are detailed explanations of the gas supply situation, one misses strategies for the reduction of oil dependency. The most important point concerning oil is its use reaches far beyond the generation of electricity or heat. Both producing industries (e.g. plastics) and the transportation sector are major consumers.

By further analyzing the European Green Paper, one recognizes that it indeed

mentions the use of concentrated solar power as a diversification measure, but only

in connection with far more complex and less developed technologies like fuel cells or hydrogen. It would be false, however, to judge this as ignorance of the DESERTEC concept, since that was first published in 2007 (DESERTEC Foundation, 2009) while the EU's energy strategy was presented in 2006.

Nonetheless, it is necessary to integrate the DESERTEC project into current planning and debate since the project plan offers the exploitation of a real, sustainable power source. The potential to provide 15% of European energy demand by 2050 offers clear potential for diversification of power generation.

Despite this, it should be asked why a higher percentage is not possible or desirable. Already today, the willingness of the DESERTEC consortium shows that the project must be economically attractive. One reason is the unlimited resource of desert sunlight in MENA, which will expose neither supplier nor consumer to scarcity problems. Increasing the target to 30% of European energy demand from solar technology by 2050 implies import dependencies less than today's rate of 50%

(European Union, 2006). This measure would enable the EU to reduce its emissions significantly by the reduction of fossil resource usage and could also provide an unlimited energy source.

The remaining economic value of oil and gas and associated lobby groups are probably responsible for these limits on the project. A clear hint for this: major European energy suppliers who also make profits from oil and gas are important members of the DESERTEC realization consortium.

The question of size and structure of the DESERTEC project leads directly into discussing the pan-European energy community. The EU mentions as problematic the security and stability of some current oil and gas supplier countries. Nor is the MENA region, where the concentrated solar power plants would be located, fully stable and secure. One difference is that, in contrast to the dependency on Russian gas, the DESERTEC project could split the risk of delivery shortages or other problems across various states since the foundation has developed plans for installing CSP technology in 50 countries.

Importantly, MENA states do not have the international power, prestige or status of

Russia. In partnerships with these countries, the EU would enjoy a stronger position and pursue its interests more easily. The EU could establish numerous partnerships and realize a pan European energy partnership around the Mediterranean Sea. Within this context, the political will for intensified relations with the Middle East and especially Northern Africa is of crucial importance.

If the EU manages to establish such partnerships, it would not only promote energy security but also emerging regional stability around the Mediterranean Sea. The efforts necessary are described in detail within the DESERTEC concept (development of water and energy infrastructure in the MENA states) and need to be refined in the EU Green Paper. Whereas dialogue with major energy consumers like China, India or USA is necessary to develop global climate protection measures, regional networks are crucial to developing competences and resources for sustainable and secure energy generation.

Comparing the success of long term, large East Asian economic development projects with the vague description of governmental activities concerning implementation of the EU paper, the idea of a regular Strategic Energy Review

and strategic investment and subsidies seems valuable in implementing a huge project like DESERTEC. Since it requires massive, risky investments in close connection with diplomatic activities, the EU must not only act on the political level but also support its economic protagonists by implementing strategic measures.

Summarizing this evaluation, it is clear DESERTEC would impact all three problem areas. CSP technology would both reduce fossil fuel dependency and reduce negative impacts on world climate. Further, it would positively effect regional relationships, stability and security in the EUMENA region, as discussed below. Despite these positive aspects, DESERTEC must be scrutinized: why is the target

for European energy supply by 2050 only 15%, and not higher?


Implementing DESERTEC on the current planned scale or even to provide a higher percentage of European energy would definitely decrease dependency on oil and gas and thus on the countries supplying them. However, it also creates new dependencies. The EU has to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of depending on current energy suppliers versus new partners from the MENA region.

MENA states possess access to the naturally unlimited resource of solar radiation in their deserts. The ability to exploit unlimited resources within a global economic system based on the logic of scarcity implies an asset of the highest value. The only limiting factor is the infrastructure needed for exploitation. If the EU decides to install the required equipment in the DESERTEC countries it naturally intensifies both economic and political relations and strengthens regional socio-economic systems.

New dependencies will form not only from the EU's energy demand but also from MENA states receiving technological support. If they gain techniques for solar power

generation and thus the basis for both improved electricity production and desalination measures this would mean major improvements for local

infrastructures; serious nutrition issues and fresh water scarcity are already expected by 2025.

Simply put, the EU takes required resources and provides infrastructure in return. This situation is reminiscent of colonialism and raises the question whether DESERTEC would lead to an economic partnership or rather a new form of energy colonialism. The imbalance of political and economic power between the MENA states and the EU means this is not impossible. However, from the European strategic viewpoint this is definitely not a disadvantage of the project. It would be an opportunity to transform Europe from a dependent energy consumer to a powerful customer.

Further, the EU should take the opportunity to utilise the energy resources of MENA's

deserts since their geographic proximity must not be ignored as a strategic factor. Another strategic aspect is the security of the EU's southern borders, since most Sub-Saharan countries experience deforestation, soil erosion, desertification and flooding problems, resulting indirectly in conflicts, genocides, civil wars and mass migration. There are around around 25 million climate refugees now and this could increase to 50-200 million by 2050, according to the International Red Cross.

Refugee movements from Sub-Saharan countries could be a real threat to Southern European borders. Stronger relationships with MENA countries, the natural transit states for Sub-Saharan refugees, would provide better conditions for securing Southern European borders. Refugees could be prevented more effectively from leaving Africa or reaching the European mainland, leading to an effective shift southward of the EU's borders and externalization of the refugee defence problem to the MENA states.

When discussing security issues one also has to evaluate improving internal infrastructure within the MENA region, resulting in reduced risk of terrorism or unreliable trade partnerships, something certainly in European interests. Realizing human influence on climate change as valid means following the pressure of lobbies trying to accomplish ideological, political and economic goals. Since the DESERTEC project already plans on investing 400 billion Euros and embodies the vision of a clean and climate neutral energy supply, it satisfies several groups.

It is remarkable how DESERTEC seems to unify both interest and attitude groups. Interest groups may be either the realization consortium, governments of EU member states, or the EU administration itself - while attitude groups are ideologically motivated, for example environmental activists.

However, man-made climate change has become a global consensus. The more actively the European Union implements DESERTEC, the more it strengthens its position as a global leader in sustainable power generation. This should mean economic advantages in technology export and sustainability.

DESERTEC's strategic meaning reaches far beyond energy supply. It represents an approach to the solution of Europe's strategic problem of energy dependencies, climate changes and regional stability. The previous discussion showed that these strategic problems could be solved by extensive implementation of the project and its

participation in European energy supply.

Conclusions and Recommendations

1. The pan-European energy community has to be institutionalized by all states comprising the EUMENA region's energy networks, by signing a contract or memorandum of understanding to define common goals and action

2. The Strategic EU Energy Review proposed by the Green paper has to be undertaken immediately by the European Union so it can plan, coordinate and track the establishment of an intelligent energy mixture

3. The EU and its member states need to establish a legal framework that allows profitable investment in DESERETEC by the private sector, probably through feed-in tariffs for solar electricity until its production costs decline with economies of scale

4. The EU needs to align its Green Paper and strategies on energy networks with

the development scenario of the DESERTEC foundation as soon as possible

5. The EU, its member states and the DESERTEC foundation should consider a 30% contribution scenario for MENA solar power by 2050 and compare the advantages and disadvantages of resulting changes in supply dependencies with the current plan of 15%

6. European diplomacy must link security partnerships with MENA states, for example refugee defense, with the structural opportunities that cooperation on DESERTEC offers for the MENA region

7. European industry must be strongly supported by EU diplomatic resources to establish both Concentrated Solar Power Plants and infrastructure like desalination

facilities and modern electricity networks in MENA states. These need to be rapidly implemented by technologically leading European companies alongside the construction of the first Concentrated Solar Power Plants

8. The predominantly German companies of the DESERTEC consortium should combine as much professional and financial resource as possible by promoting an active planning stage dialogue with interested French firms

9. The DESERTEC consortium needs to overcome remaining problems of electricity storage technology as soon as possible

10. European electricity networks have to be modernized to cope with the varying utilization rates caused by use of alternative sources like solar power. European

energy companies should complete this before significant amounts of DESERTEC electricity reach the continent