A consortium wants to invest $560 billion in Sahara solar panels

The Sahara gets twice as much sunshine annually as most of Europe. The European Union wants to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within a decade. So why not build solar power plants across North Africa and ship the electricity north via power lines under the Mediterranean?

Over the past year, more than 30 European blue chips have joined the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), a consortium that seeks a $560 billion investment in North African solar and wind installations over the next 40 years. The DII is completing a feasibility study and hopes to be building its first power plant by 2013. A separate group of companies called Transgreen, formed in July, is working on plans for the thousands of miles of high-voltage lines needed. The challenge is immense: Winning agreement from very different countries on two continents to carry out one of the biggest infrastructure projects in history.

Many backers are eager for a share of rich construction contracts. They include engineering outfits such as Germany’s Siemens (SI) and Swiss-Swedish group ABB (ABB) and solar companies Abengoa Solar of Spain and First Solar (FSLR) of Arizona. Giant Italian utility Enel wants to rely less on Russian gas, and German insurer Munich Re sees the project as a hedge against damage from global warming. “We are creating a large network of allies with complementary interests,” says the DII’s boss, a former Dutch utility executive named Paul van Son.

There’s little doubt that Sahara sun can power Europe. Cables already carry electricity under the Mediterranean—though the power flows from Spain to Morocco. And after years of false starts, scores of large-scale solar power plants are being built or in advanced planning stages, from the American Southwest to the Mideast. “There is now a good track record,” says Bernd Utz, head of Siemens’ renewable energy division.

With the technology the consortium plans to use, solar-powered electricity costs at least four times as much per kilowatt-hour as power from coal- and gas-fired plants, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an analysis group. Governments have used subsidies to support alternate energy companies until their costs are more in line with oil and gas. The U.S. in July awarded a $1.45 billion loan guarantee to lower financing costs for the planned Solana power plant in Arizona, at 280 megawatts one of the world’s largest.

The Sahara project envisions generating capacity equal to almost 400 Solanas. Where would the financing come from? The DII and Transgreen member companies so far have put up less than $10 million for feasibility studies. They want Europe’s governments to require utilities to pay more for Sahara-generated energy, a preferential arrangement that European countries use to spur solar and wind energy development at home.

Trouble is, Germany and Spain are reducing these rates, which the utilities often pass on to customers. The depth of political support in North Africa is another issue. Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt back the project. Algeria wants to develop solar plants on its own. Some European critics, meanwhile, see a case of overreach. “European countries can develop faster and cheaper than Desertec a renewable energy supply from indigenous sources,” says Hermann Scheer, a member of the German Bundestag who heads Eurosolar, a Bonn-based solar research and advocacy group.

Even Europe’s sunniest regions, though, don’t get enough sun to generate power as efficiently as in North Africa, says Abengoa Solar Chief Executive Officer Santiago Seage. The Sahara’s ample space is crucial since plans call for fields of mirrors, totaling hundreds of square miles, at more than 20 locations. The mirrors would concentrate the sun’s rays to create heat and drive turbines— a technology known as concentrating solar power (CSP) that allows heat to be extracted and stored gradually so electricity is generated continuously. Plans also call for solar photovoltaic and wind turbine generators, whose energy costs less to produce than CSP yet don’t offer storage capacity. “For utilities, CSP is a much more robust product,” Seage says.

As the consortium feels its way forward, some European countries could strike bilateral deals with North African suppliers. Morocco, for example, has announced plans to build solar plants for its own use. Since Morocco’s government can’t afford the subsidies that would make solar power feasible inside its own borders, it might team up with Spain or France to help with financing in exchange for a share of output, suggests Logan Goldie-Scot, a London-based analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “The [Desertec] project will happen,” he says, yet “it’s likely to be a series of small projects.”

The bottom line: Europe is pursuing a plan to tap the solar energy of the Sahara. Financing is a hurdle, as is securing cooperation from many players.

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