CAIRO, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- The first phase of the world's most ambitious solar power project is to get under way in Morocco in early 2012 and is likely to extend to Algeria and Tunisia.
The Desertec Industrial Initiative, the German-led consortium behind the $549 billion carbon-free project, announced in Cairo Wednesday that "all systems are go in Morocco."
The plan is to use vast arrays of solar panels across the Sahara Desert to harness the rays of the sun, which shines there virtually all year round, to produce steam to drive turbines that will generate electricity for the region through an envisioned supergrid that would supply 15-20 percent of Europe's requirements.
Because North Africa's sunlight is much more intense than that in Europe, solar photovoltaic panels used by the Desertec project could generate up to three times the electricity that similar projects in northern Europe produce.
Arnulf Jaeger-Walden of the European Commission's Institute for Energy, has said it requires only 0.3 percent of the sunlight falling on the Sahara and other Middle Eastern deserts to provide all of Europe's energy needs.
At DII's Cairo conference, Chief Executive Officer Paul Van Son disclosed that the first phase of the project gets under way next year with the construction of a $2.8 billion, 2.5-square-mile solar farm, using parabolic mirrors that will feed a 500-megawatt power plant.
It's expected this will be located near the Moroccan desert city of Ouarzazate. This phase will take two to four years to complete, with electricity production starting no later than 2016.
Van Son described Desertec as a "win-win" deal for both Europe and the Middle East.
He said discussions were under way with Tunisia on building a solar farm there, with Algeria the next "obvious" country because of its proximity to Europe.
Algeria is already a key supplier of natural gas to energy-hungry Europe, which is striving to lessen its dependence on Russian gas supplies.
Eventually, Van Son observed, Libya, Egypt, Syria and faraway Saudi Arabia would join the Desertec power grid through a network of high-voltage lines that will be built across the Middle East from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean.
Egyptian Minister of Electricity and Energy Hassan Younes said Cairo was eager to join the project and already has a 150MW hybrid gas-solar power plant that opened this year 60 miles south of the Egyptian capital.
The DII 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 total area of around 3.47 million square miles, in Morocco and its neighbors.
These would generate much of the electricity for North Africa and the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia at the eastern edge of the Arab world, by 2050.
The concept has caught on across Europe, particularly in Germany which plans to phase out nuclear power completely by 2022, in part as a consequence of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March.
"Desertec opened up an opportunity for us," Jochen Homann of Germany's Federal Ministry for Economics and Technology, said in Cairo.
"We want to enter the age of renewables with sustainable sources of electricity supplying 80 percent of our power generation by 2050 …
"Germany's government will continue to support Desertec. It's an inspiring vision which is good for foreign, climate and economic policies," he said.
In January 2010, nine European countries drew up plans to link clean energy projects around the North Sea.
The nine -- Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland and Britain -- are working on building a high-voltage direct current network within the next decade.
"This network, made up of thousands of kilometers of highly efficient undersea cables that could cost $41.3 billion, would solve one of the biggest criticisms faced by renewable power -- that unpredictable weather means it is unreliable," Britain's The Guardian newspaper reported.
Connected to Norway's many hydroelectric power stations, it could act as a giant 30 gigawatt battery for Europe's clean energy, storing electricity when demand is low and be a major step toward a continent-wide supergrid that could link into the vast potential of solar power farms in North Africa."