Kate Mackenzie EU talks up Desertec plan: Saharan solar just five years away

The Desertec project – an ambitious proposal to supply Europe with solar power from the Sahara desert – seems to be making some progress, with officials declaring there will be some transmission under way within five years.

At least, the potential political hurdles faced by Desertec supporters are being addressed, if reports of a multilateral talks involving Guenther Oettinger are anything to go by. From Reuters:

“I think some models starting in the next 5 years will bring some hundreds of megawatts to the European market,” Oettinger told Reuters after a meeting with energy ministers from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

He said those initial volumes would come from small pilot projects, but the amount of electricity would go up into the thousands of megawatts as projects including the 400 billion euro ($495 billion) Desertec solar scheme come on stream.

“Desertec as a whole is a vision for the next 20 to 40 years with investment of hundreds of billions of euros,” said Oettinger. “To integrate a bigger percentage of renewables, solar and wind, needs time.”

Oettinger said the risk of the cables being used to transmit energy generated from fossil fuels rather than renewables was “a good question”, but not one that should stop the project going ahead.

The Desertec Industrial Intiative consortium includes some big companies, such as RWE, Munich Re, Siemens and Deutsche Bank. But the project is expected to need plenty of public money to go ahead. So where is Oettinger on that question?

On the prospect of EU subsidies, or the European Commission permitting state aid to firms involved in the project, he said that would become clear once the consortium has presented a detailed business plan.

Several reports on a Europe-north African grid make the Desertec initiative’s goals of about 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity by 2050 look modest.

A paper by McKinsey and several other organisations found that cutting Europe’s CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 would be no more expensive than the ‘business as usual’ upgrades to existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

Another paper, by PriceWaterhouseCoopers pointed out that a plan to get Europe and North Africa to 100 per cent renewable power by 2050 would cost about €100bn by 2030; but that this compared well to the cost of existing renewable subsidies — Germany, for example, spent €40bn on solar subsidies.

But those German subsidies are not looking too popular right now; and in any case, were introduced long before the European sovereign crisis fears took hold.

Related links:

Q&A: Mark Jacobson on 100% renewable energy - FT Energy Source
The next challenge for that €400bn desert solar plan – FT Energy Source
Cutting CO2 by 80% no more expensive than business as usual - FT Energy Source