Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Desertec—another victim of austerity?

Desertec is going through a rough patch—actually most Producer Class enterprises in Europe are.  But I am reasonably certain this is one of those projects that will not die.  Why?  It make thermodynamic sense.  If that were not enough, when it comes to powering our societies without fire, there are probably no solar sources more reliable than the Sahara.

So why is Desertec on hiatus if it is such a good idea?  The question is answered with another by Desertec's backers, "Where is the tax money?"  Of course, government funding is all going to bail out the crooks of the financial world.  Projects like Desertec are so large, they can realistically only be built by governments.  So long as we believe the neoliberal doctrine that nothing useful can be built by governments, we are seriously constrained in what sorts of projects can be accomplished.

Ah yes! Neoliberalism—the perfect doctrine for people with small imaginations.  Too bad the rest of have to suffer from their pinched worldviews.

Quagmire in the Sahara

Desertec's Promise of Solar Power for Europe Fades

By Joel Stonington   11/13/2012

As recently as three years ago, many thought that it was only a matter of time before solar thermal plants in North Africa supplied a significant portion of Europe's energy needs. But Desertec has hit a road block. Industrial backers are jumping ship, political will is tepid and a key pilot project has suddenly stalled.

Supporters hailed the Desertec Industrial Initiative as the most ambitious solar energy project ever when it was founded in 2009. Major industrial backers pledged active involvement, politicians saw a win-win proposition and environmentalists fawned over Europe's green energy future. For a projected budget of €400 billion ($560 billion), the venture was to pipe clean solar power from the Sahara Desert through a Mediterranean super-grid to energy-hungry European countries.

Today, a scant three years later, there is still little to show for the project but the ambition.

The list of recent setbacks is daunting. The project has failed to break ground on a single power plant. Spain recently balked at signing a declaration of intent to connect high-voltage lines between Morocco and the rest of Europe. In recent weeks, two of the biggest industrial supporters at the founding of the initiative, Siemens and Bosch, backed out. And perhaps most tellingly, though last week's third annual Desertec conference was held in Berlin's Foreign Ministry, not a single German cabinet minister bothered to attend.

"Much to his regret, Minister Rösler could not participate in the third Dii Desert Energy Conference due to conflicting schedules," the German Economy Ministry said in a statement explaining Philipp Rösler's absence. "Notwithstanding, the federal government, in principle, is willing to support a Desertec pilot project in Morocco. However, there are several open questions. Therefore, Minister Rösler has advised against too much euphoria."

Political backing for energy from the desert, in other words, is evaporating.

The hurdles facing the project, to be sure, have always been high and have become more challenging in recent years. For one, political strains in North Africa have multiplied as the Arab Spring destabilized the political landscape in the region and, in some cases, reignited the historical distrust that exists among neighboring countries. Furthermore, energy needs in the Middle East and North Africa are growing even as a lack of experience and a challenging regulatory environment produce new challenges.

'Where Is the Tax Money?'

Finally, energy policy and security policy tend to go hand in hand. For all the initial enthusiasm, countries have been hesitant about plunging into a large, cooperative grid in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The result is a paucity of public investment funds.

"It's a shame," said Dr. Wolfgang Knothe, a co-founder of the Desertec Foundation, a non-profit organization which is a significant motor pushing the Desertec idea forward. "We should say we're closing the whole thing down because we have no political support."

Hans-Josef Fell, a parliamentarian with the Green Party who attended the Dii conference last week, was frustrated as well. "The ministers are not here. They feared the question: 'Where is the tax money?'"

The reasons for the political hesitance are clear. Renewable energy projects remain more expensive than traditional fossil fuel plants and tend to require government subsidies. And Desertec is an order of magnitude larger and more complicated than the offshore wind parks currently under construction in the North Sea. The idea is to generate a significant percentage of Europe's energy needs using solar thermal plants in sunny North Africa and then transmitting that power via an ultramodern grid across the Mediterranean. With Germany having turned away from nuclear fuel in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in early 2011 and Europe's ongoing pursuit of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the need to import renewable energy from the places where it is most abundant is more acute than ever. more

'Political Leadership Is Missing'

A Desertec Founder Laments a Lack of Support

AP 11/13/2012

Desertec, the ambitious plan to supply Europe with vast amounts of solar power from North Africa, has lost its shine. Friedrich Führ, co-founder of the Desertec Foundation, spoke with SPIEGEL ONLINE about the project's missteps thus far, his disappointment in European politicians and why it is vital that the venture continues.

When the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) was founded three years ago, the €400 billion ($560 billion) project was called the most ambitious solar energy venture ever. Three years later, there is very little to show for the effort.

Backed by numerous large companies and accompanied by glowing press clippings, the Desertec Industrial Initiative has served as little more than greenwashing during the last three years. Despite the backing of major European companies, such as energy giant RWE and Deutsche Bank, the project has failed to break ground on a single power plant. Furthermore, two of the biggest supporters at the founding of the initiative, Siemens and Bosch, recently pulled out of the Desertec Industrial Initiative.

Friedrich Führ, a co-founder of the Desertec Foundation, has long been a backer and vocal booster for the Desertec vision. Today, he is frustrated with the direction that the Dii has taken and angered with the lack of progress. An independent business consultant and attorney, Führ left the board of the foundation in 2010. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Führ about the direction of Desertec and the outcome of the third annual conference of the Desertec Industrial Initiative, held last week in Berlin.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The hype surrounding Dii was significant when the project was kicked off three years ago. Now, though, important backers are abandoning the project. How big of a setback is it that Siemens and now Bosch are pulling out?

Führ: It's a wake up call. Bosch is an associate partner with a three-year contract so if they do not wish to continue, it is a pity, but it has no greater influence. Siemens is a founding member and shareholder of the Dii. They are so big and they have so many other renewable energy components. There is no good reason for it. They made a mistake and now is the time to admit it. They should retract this insult to their fellow shareholders, stay within the Dii and finish the job. Or the board of Siemens will be ignoring their own vision of a green company. I still believe that the vision of Desertec is right and nothing has changed, but the way is difficult. And if the way is difficult, then we have to try harder. more

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