An ambitious German-led project to supply Europe with solar energy from the deserts of North Africa will start with a meeting on July 13, an executive from the German insurance giant Munich Re told the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday. The project involves a consortium of about 20 firms -- including Siemens, Deutsche Bank, and energy companies like RWE -- and will cost 400 billion ($555.3 billion), according to Munich Re board member Torsten Jeworrek.
Jeworrek said the initiative aimed to "present concrete plans in two to three years' time," and start the flow of energy to Europe within a decade. Munich Re will lead the project, and the meeting in July will formally establish the group.
The consortium plans to fund a project called Desertec, which envisions relatively low-tech solar thermal power -- using mirrors in the desert to heat up water, which drives turbines in a local power plant -- rather than an array of high-tech photovoltaic cells.
Jeworrek declined to list all 20 members of the new funding group, but said the German Economy Ministry and the Club of Rome, a non-governmental organization based in Zürich, were also involved.
From the Maghreb to Europe
The Desertec plan requires a new grid of high-voltage transmission lines from the Maghreb desert to Europe. No new technology needs to be developed, according to Hans Müller-Steinhagen, who works at the German Aerospace Center and has researched the feasibility of Desertec for Germany's Environment Ministry. The idea has existed for years, but the high cost of building the infrastructure has kept investors away.
Müller-Steinhagen told SPIEGEL ONLINE last year that similar power plants have operated in the American west for years, and work on independent plants has started in Spain, Algeria, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. But the projects have languished, in part because of the price of oil. "After the solar thermal power plants were built in California and Nevada," Müller-Steinhagen said, "people lost interest in solar thermal power because fossil fuels became unbeatably cheap."
Jeworrek said the new initiative, which promises to be the largest green-energy project in the world, could provide around 15 percent of Europe's energy needs. But German firms can't do it alone -- Desertec would require cooperation among a number of different governments and firms. One important prerequisite, Jeworrek suggested, was political stability. "We're very optimistic about Italy and Spain," he said.
Desertec was developed by a network of scientists and politicians called the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC). Last year French President Nicolas Sarkozy indicated interest in the idea -- and in working with Mediterranean nations in general -- but Jeworrek reserved judgment on French participation. "The French are still relying heavily on nuclear energy," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday.