Europe’s ambitious project to capture solar and wind energy across Arab deserts to power homes in Europe, the Middle East and Africa inched forward Thursday despite technical and political hurdles.

Two international consortiums led by German and French industrial giants joined forces in highly complex drives to deploy solar panels and wind turbines in arid regions, and sink cables across the Mediterranean.

The two groups, Desertec Industry Initiative and Medgrid, signed a cooperation deal in Brussels on the sidelines of an EU energy ministers’ meeting, linking projects aimed at meeting 15 percent of Europe’s electricity demand by 2050.

“By joining efforts and coordinating their approaches, the two initiatives take a truly European dimension,” said EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.

“There is now a concrete perspective of solar and wind energy being produced for the joint benefit of European and northern African and Middle Eastern citizens, as well for the benefit of both markets,” he said.

The Desertec Industry Initiative (DII), whose shareholders include German industry giant Siemens, major lender Deutsche Bank and power supplier EON, wants to use sun-drenched regions to provide power for Arab and European nations.

Medgrid, founded by French energy giants Areva and EDF, along with engineering group Alstom and others, plans to install underwater cables between Europe and Africa via the Strait of Gibraltar.

The European Union is sponsoring the projects as part of its efforts to combat global warming, which aim to make renewable energy 20 percent of the market and reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent compared to 1990 levels.

Germany is especially keen to develop alternative energy sources since it decided to phase out atomic energy by 2022, a decision hastened by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster earlier this year.

On paper, the project is attractive — the Sahara desert provides twice as much sunlight as in Paris, is sparsely inhabited and contains silicium, a material key to making solar panels.

But the plans are politically sensitive in a region of former European colonies.

“Some southern countries were turned off at the beginning because they felt Europe was launching a neo-colonialist enterprise to pillage their resources,” said a source close to the negotiations.

The project will first cover the growing needs of countries in the region, and then at a later stage export energy to Europe.

A first solar field will soon get off the ground in Morocco at a cost of 1.9 billion euros. Near Ouarzazat, in central Morocco, the plant is expected to produce 500 Megawatts, half the energy created by a nuclear reactor.

A feasibility study is planned for Tunisia as well as talks with Egypt, according to Desertec.

At Medgrid, officials admit that a lot of work remains as the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the region this year froze negotiations that had begun with former despotic regimes.

“There were disruptions in our relations (with some countries), notably Tunisia. In Syria, the situation is more complicated. We don’t have any contact,” said Medgrid chief executive Andre Merlin.

But Merlin is optimistic about the future.

“We will be able to exchange electricity in both directions. The north especially needs energy in the winter because of the cold, while the south needs it in summer for air conditioning,” he said. — Agence France Presse

Source: gmanetwork

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