CASABLANCA, Morocco, June 8 (UPI) -- Critics of the Desertec project, a $566 billion scheme to meet Europe's energy needs by generating vast amounts of solar power from the Sahara Desert, say political upheaval in North Africa has scuppered its short-term prospects.
But at a recent conference on the massive project in Berlin, other experts voiced optimism that the pro-democracy turmoil sweeping the Arab world will usher in the long-term economic stability that will make the ambitious Desertec plan a reality.
"Many critics are saying that the Desertec project is dead because of the unrest in the region," said Kirsten Westphal, an energy expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"But I would say the exact opposite is true … Socio-economic development and the development of democracy go hand-in-hand," she declared during the May 19-20 conference.
It was organized by the Deutsches Elektron-Synchrotron and the German Aerospace Center, in conjunction with Egypt's Academy of Scientific Research and Technology and the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, who has headquarters in Jordan.
The Desertec Industrial Initiative was launched in 2009 by a 20-member German-led consortium headed by Deutsche Bank, Siemens, the Munich Re insurance giant and energy heavyweight E.on.
The project envisages building solar thermal power plants across 34,740 square miles of the Sahara, a small fraction of its area of around 3.47 million square miles, in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
These would generate much of the electricity for North Africa and the Middle East by 2050 by using giant arrays of mirrors to harness the sun's rays to produce steam and drive turbines to make electricity.
The project would also provide at least 15 percent of Europe's power requirement via high-voltage transmission lines across the Mediterranean Sea.
Supporters of the project say the amount of solar energy that falls on the Sahara all year round is so enormous that Desertec, when fully operational, could supply the energy needs of the entire world.
Concentrated solar power plans are operating in the United States but Desertec would be the first to transmit solar energy over a long distance.
The project, if it gets off the ground, would also be one of the largest non-polluting power initiatives in the world.
Right from the start of Desertec, there were questions about the political stability of the North African countries where the solar arrays would be built.
The upheavals that began in Tunisia in January and spread to Egypt and other Arab states heightened concern that the project carries significant risks.
The fall of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt within a few weeks of pro-democracy uprisings caused greater alarm among potential investors and as the turmoil has spread so has worries about the feasibility of the ambitious solar project.
There have been questions, too, about neo-colonialism -- using European-driven investment to tap into North Africa's energy resources for the benefit of Europe.
"It's a white elephant in the desert," Marc Jedliczka, general director of Hespul, a French non-profit organization devoted to renewable energy and energy efficiency, declared at the Berlin conference.
He argued that a European-initiated projects that intends to harvest and export African energy resources is seen in the region as having a hidden agenda aimed at befitting Europe.
Odeh al-Jayyousi, regional director for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan and a supporter of Desertec, said that amid the political turmoil "this wave of democracy will nurture new ideas.
"I think we need this type of big idea that will cross national boundaries and induce a new model of development," he said.
The Berlin conference was intended to open a dialogue on the project and promote transparency and DII has scheduled another gathering for Nov. 2-3 in Cairo to address that issue.
The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel noted that "Desertec is hoping that public forums like these can help to convince skeptics that its motives are honorable.
"Until the project takes concrete shape, however, doubts are likely to remain.
"Desert Power for the People was the title of the Berlin event. But it is perhaps understandable if stakeholders in North Africa and the Middle East find themselves asking the question: Which people?"