Africa's sun to power Europe's homes?

June 16, 2009 at 11:58 AM
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BERLIN, June 16 (UPI) -- A group of 20 German companies wants to invest $555 billion in concentrated solar power plants in northern Africa to sell green power to Europe and make the continent less dependent on oil and gas imports.

It would be one of the world's biggest private renewable energy projects: Some 20 German companies are planning to join forces to build CSP plants in northern Africa and transport the electricity to Europe via new, direct current power grids.

The consortium, to be formed by mid-July, includes, among others, economic powerhouse Siemens, finance institution Deutsche Bank and energy giant RWE, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reports. The ambitious green project, dubbed "Desertec," could produce power as early as 2019 and eventually satisfy 15 percent of Europe's electricity demand, Torsten Jeworrek, a Munich Re board member, told the newspaper.

The companies, backed by German government officials and the Club of Rome, plan to invest some $555 billion in the deserts of northern Africa. The money would not only be used for building the CSP plants, but also the gird infrastructure needed to bring the electricity to Europe.

"This is no longer a distant vision but technologically fascinating and also achievable," Jeworrek said in a statement Tuesday. "Desertec is clearly banking on the right incentives in the long term, namely climate protection and a low-carbon energy sector."

European energy experts have long advocated making the sunny African deserts Europe's power bank in order to reduce the continent's dependence on oil and gas imports from Russia and the Middle East. As its domestic fossil fuel resources are quickly depleting, Europe will have to transform its energy mix to avoid rising import dependence, experts say. In the case of solar power from Africa, however, investors have always been deterred by the high up-front investment required.

Munich Re is now banking on several international partners, also from the government side, to help finance the project.

"We are very optimistic when it comes to Italy and Spain, and we are also getting positive signals out of northern Africa," Jeworrek told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Only France, he added, might be hard to convince because of its reliance on nuclear energy.

A similar project in southern Spain was realized only when a feed-in tariff was implemented to pay for the electricity generated there. But Jeworrek said the plant would not need permanent support. He expects Desertec to be competitive "within 10 to 15 years."

Jeworrek added the consortium would choose the plants' locations according to political stability. The host countries would benefit from taxes, job creation and technology transfer, observers say.

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