Maps and Legends
A Critical Look at Desertec

by Oscar Reyes

first published 31 March 2012

Desertec is a renewable energy plan whose primary objective is to build concentrated solar power plants in the Middle East and North Africa, and then connect them up to a high-voltage direct current transmission line to export electricity to the EU. It also foresees a single market in electricity throughout the EU-Middle East-North Africa region to meet this objective, and is linked with plans to build water desalination plants in the region.

This paper introduces the Desertec concept through an analysis of the archetypal maps that have been produced to support it. It details the research network and industry-backed initiatives promoting the concept, and explores how Desertec has become embedded in the EU’s regional policies and energy policies. It describes the international financial institutions -- most notably, the World Bank and African Development Bank -- that have been supporting the concept.

Challenges have been repeatedly thrown up regarding Desertec’s economic viability and claimed development benefits. When “Energy” production is framed as a resource for extraction and export, and dis-embedded from the diverse contexts of local demands and use, it is likely to exacerbate any existing tensions and conflicts.

Although the development of solar power in the Middle East and North Africa is at an early stage, the concept of developing such power plants at the populated and water-scarce edges of the region’s deserts could backfire if it continues to exclude local knowledge, involvement, participation and control and to ignore geopolitical pressures and economic uncertainties.

A rapid transition away from fossil fuels is essential to forestall runaway climate change, but promoting exaggerated claims of solar mega-projects and embedding them within a neo-liberal model of energy market liberalisation undermines this goal and discredits it by association.

(This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of The Corner House and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.)

June 2014 update
Since March 2012 when this paper was written, its assertions that Desertec over-sold its claims and was not rooted in the local context have been backed up the withdrawal of key corporate sponsors.

German companies Siemens and Bosch pulled out in October 2012; while in July 2013, the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) abandoned its strategy of exporting to Europe electricity generated from Saharan sunshine, and the Desertec Foundation pulled out of the project.

Industry insiders have cited various reasons for the project’s collapse. The president of industry association Eurosolar, for instance, has argued that Desertec was “expensive and utopian” and thus attracted “very little funding”.

Desertec’s economic viability was based on exports; but the lack of electricity connections, lines and capacities between the Maghreb and Europe, some of which are technically difficult to build such as deepwater cables underneath the Mediterranean (and the lack of grid connections within Europe itself) hinder such exports.

The governments of the North African countries involved are not confident that northern European countries would be prepared to buy their solar-generated electricity.

Concentrated solar power (CSP) collectors require a huge input of capital while the price of photo voltaic panels (PV) has dropped substantially in the five years since the Desertec project was launched in 2009. 

The case presented in Maps and Legends, however, still serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when a dis-embedded “Energy” vision is laid over a complex array of social, economic and political conditions. It also illustrates how such a vision can be transformed once embedded within institutions, in this case a consortium of transnational corporations, with a supporting cast of international financial institutions.