Sahara solar project fades, but sunpower shines in gulf

July 25, 2013 at 4:08 PM
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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, July 25 (UPI) -- The drive for renewable energy in the oil-rich Middle East has suffered a major setback with the apparent collapse of a project to build a vast solar power grid in the Moroccan Sahara.

But other solar projects are thriving amid a once-unthinkable green revolution in Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil producer, and the other Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf.

The ambitious $560 billion Desertec project, launched in 2009 and largely German-led, envisioned a gigantic power-generating operation across Morocco's Sahara Desert using solar energy that would provide 15 percent of energy-hungry Europe's electricity by 2050 via cables under the Mediterranean, with plans to extend that further afield around the globe.

But this month the Desertec Foundation, funded by powerful European industrial corporations, and the Desertec Industrial Initiative disclosed their plans have fallen through because of conflict over the project's corporate governance and its strategic objectives.

There have been other setbacks. In 2012, Spain, the closest European state to the planned power grid in Morocco, balked at signing a declaration of intent to connect high-power voltage lines between Morocco and the rest of Europe.

Later, two of the biggest corporate backers of the project, industrial giant Siemens and Bosch, the world's largest auto parts supplier, backed out.

The German government's interest in the massive project began to wane amid the global economic downturn.

On top of all that, political upheaval triggered by the pro-democracy uprisings against dictatorial regimes across North Africa undermined the project and, officials observed, heightened the historical distrust among the region's Arab states.

The security crisis caused by the downfall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya unnerved other backers amid the immense flow of arms across the region and a surge in operations by jihadist groups.

Klause Schmidtke, communications head of the Desertec Industrial Initiative, says: "We're not happy about the decision ... but it does not affect the realization of desert power in the Middle East or North Africa."

While interest in Europe ebbs, it's growing in the Persian Gulf where there's a wave of renewable projects, including solar power, under way and growing fast.

This is spreading across the entire Middle East and North Africa region, but the gulf monarchies have the funds -- generated, ironically by the production of oil and gas -- to make it happen.

So this is the main focus for solar projects. A major milestone was reached March 17, when Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich economic powerhouse of the United Arab Republics, began operating the Shams-1 solar project using arrays of photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight to electricity.

With a planned capacity of 100 megawatts, it's the biggest facility of its kind in the Middle East and is operated by Masdar, the state-owned renewable energy company.

At full capacity the desert facility, which covers the equivalent of nearly 300 football fields outside the Emirates capital, will be able to power 20,000 homes.

Other projects, including a 100MW photovoltaic plant called Nour-1 and a 30MW wind farm. By 2020, Abu Dhabi, which holds almost all of the Emirates' oil, plans to be able to generate 7 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources.

In nearby Dubai, the Emirates' financial hub, the government has awarded the first-phase construction contract to U.S.-based First Solar for a modest 13MW photovoltaic plant later this year.

"We're not like many other countries that are in desperate need for complimentary sources of power," said Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, Masdar's chief executive. "We're looking at it from a strategic point of view. ... We want to become a technology player rather than an energy player."

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude oil exporter, is seeking about $100 billion in solar investments to generate one-third of its power, about 41,000MW, by 2032 to meet rising demand from a rapidly growing population and an expanding economy.

That will allow it to cut back on using oil for power generation and free it up for export. Under the region's most ambitious renewable program, the kingdom aims to save at least 523,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day in the next two decades.

The kingdom completed its biggest photovoltaic plant in January. Phoenix Solar AG of Germany developed a 3MW to 5MW plant at Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that uses 12,684 panels from China's Suntech Power Holdings.

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