EU sees electricity imported from Sahara in 2050
A German eco group hopes to blow away the opposition – by expanding Europe's energy market into the Sahara with an array of giant solar and wind plants glinting in the desert sun.
In what some have described as a “dazzlingly ambitious plan”, Desertec, a German consortium set up in 2009, envisages Europe will import up to a fifth of its electricity from solar and wind parks from desolate sandy dunes in North Africa and the Middle East by 2050.
Spread over 6,500 square miles - more than half the size of Belgium - Desertec's projected delivery of 1,064 terawatt hours (TWh) would be almost enough energy to power the whole of Germany for two years.
However, with a projected budget of $492 billion, it has been dismissed by some business leaders and tech experts as too expensive, too risky - and too big.
Not so though, says Michael Koehler, head of cabinet in the EU's Energy Commission.
"A vision can be more concrete than just a dream. It can be a political vision," said Koehler.
"Trade in renewables between Northern Africa and Europe is longer just a dream. It is declared EU policy."
In fact, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has raised the prospect of financial, legal and practical support.
Solar power accounts for about 4 per cent of Germany'senergy mix - but swallows about half of the 13 billion euros in costs Germany's end-consumers pay for the expansion of renewables.
EU money, used in a more far-sighted way, could trigger private investment to improve grid connections between continents - though it needs approval from member states.
In the single energy market sought by the Commission, desert power could be dispersed widely, but Germany, the EU's biggest economy and biggest energy user, is particularly in need.
Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, Germany decided to phase out atomic energy, effectively meaning that 20.5 gigawatts (GW) in capacity will go offline by 2022.
That increases its need for renewable energy if it is to continue to meet goals to reduce CO2 emissions.
And solar could be the sole biggest beneficiary.
"We believe that the concept is good," Lettemieke Mulder, a vice president at First Solar, said of the North African region.
"So far there is great potential."