Standing on the shores of the Mediterranean, anywhere from Tangiers to Istanbul, it’s not exactly difficult to imagine the region’s renewable potential. Most of North Africa can count on deep, intense sun throughout much of the year and in places like Spain’s southern most point of Tarifa, wind is so constant and fierce, it’s said to drive people a little crazy.
Still, finding a way to bridge potential with reality remains tough. Whether it’s a question of technology, political support or in the case of Italy, aesthetics, turning the region’s seemingly endless supply of wind and sun into a viable, profitable solution is a daunting task.
Along the Mediterranean’s southern coast, one possible solution has taken root in the form of Desertec – a multifaceted approach to market development and investment support with a focus on creating a sprawling grid of solar, wind and hybrid projects across North Africa.
First pitched as a solution to development and energy issues in the south and source of green energy for the European market, Desertec has slowly taken shape over the last few years behind a pleasant vision of a North African super grid. To oversimplify it a bit, the project vision maps out a vast network of green energy projects across the sea’s southern coast, providing jobs, energy and economic weight to countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt while simultaneously creating a sizable power source for European consumers eager to both ease dependence on foreign oil and gas and meet EU-backed sustainability goals. To accomplish such a feat, the network would be composed of mostly large-scale solar and wind farms meant for supplying sprawling grid strategies rather than specific energy solutions.
“Our main role is to be market enablers,” explained Desertec Industrial Initiative CEO Paul Van Son. “We do whatever we can to work with local partners to create a market where confidence is strong enough to attract local and international partners.”
Together with ample transmission lines, the network would serves to produce and move energy where and when needed. Backed by a foundation that pushes for outreach and awareness and an industrial initiative aimed at spurring investment and market evolution, this vision imagines a closely-knit Mediterranean energy and development network.
However, as inviting as such a grand idea sounds, the scope of such a project has attracted its share of skeptics. “Its like some fantasy dreamt up in a spa at Davos,” remarked one critic. Citing the obvious challenges of North Africa’s scattered and insufficient energy infrastructure, unease among foreign investors about pouring money into the region and the ability to inject energy into the European grid, Desertec doubters have adopted a wait and see stance when it comes to project potential.
That approach, Desertec supporters suggest, misses the point entirely. A plan this big will clearly take a long while, but you have to start somewhere. Instead of looking at how such a plan will work on a small scale in the next month or year, they explain, it’s necessary to look at how steps will work towards goals 30 or 40 years from now.
Indeed, those behind Desertec are the first to admit their approach is not one meant for quick, short-term rewards.
“Our role is to get everyone on board behind that vision,” Van Son said. “And to create that alliance of industries and NGOs behind that visions, we have to offer a picture of the long-term.”
What both critics and supporters of the effort can agree upon is the need for a few viable projects to take shape to really get the momentum going in their favor. With a few anchors in place, providing benefits to both sides of the Mediterranean, a clear picture of what’s possible could take shape.
“Our job is not to convince investors necessarily, as much as to stress what is favorable to the whole mission and we can do that by supporting a few ideal projects,” said Thiemo Gropp, director of the Desertec Foundation.
“One thing that would be game-changing would be a EU country or group of countries that concluded an agreement (with a North African partner) that outlined how things would be paid for,” noted one World Bank official. “How grid access would be completed and laid out the framework but mostly figured out how the imports would be paid for.”