When Europe announced its grand plans of using the Saharan heat to generate electricity to feed into its grid, it seemed like a blessing to North Africa as it seemed almost obvious that a lot of people would get jobs and economies would develop. This is the abstract idea one might have entertained but the reality proved to be a little different with the project facing a lot of criticism for its focus on benefitting Europe at the expense of the African economies hosting the infrastructure. It suddenly reeked of imperialist connotations. The language used in the Desertec documents themselves took the Sahara to be an expansive area of nothingness waiting for Europe to exploit. Is this not the same approach the Europeans used as they came in to seize land in Africa? It is on the face of this hard-hitting truth of the capitalist motives behind Desertec that Mansour Cherni, a Tunisian trade unionist said, “Where will the energy produced here be used? Where will the water come from that will cool the solar power plants? And what do locals get from it at all?”
All obviously rhetoric questions everyone knows the answer to. The locals were going to get nothing.
Nadine May may have unwittingly brewed a storm for Africa as her 2005 research thesis for the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany threw the issue of desert energy back in the public domain. She propounded that an area of 3.49 million square kilometres was potentially available for solar power development in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and that an area of 254 kilometres by 254 kilometres would sufficiently meet the electricity demands of the world. The EU would be lit up by a smaller area of 110 kilometres by 110 kilometres. She used collectors with 100% efficiency but later Land Art Generator Initiative put the area at eight times that was suggested by May after using hypothetical collectors with 20% efficiency- a more realistic starting point. May was not the first to dabble in issues of how much Sahara solar power could provide electricity for Europe. In 1913, American engineer Frank Shuman presented plans for the first solar thermal power station to Egypt’s colonial elite. His plans were derailed by the 1st World War. Gerhard Knies in 1986 then also took it up arguing that deserts received more power than that consumed within a year, the world over. Knies is one of the brains behind Desertec and it is soon clear that this had nothing to do with Africa but was meant to feed into Europe.
The “grand” plan of Europe to supply 15% of its needs using Saharan solar energy hit turbulent waters as a result of infrastructure in the receiving continent not being fully equipped to accept this flow of energy from the Sahara. Peter Droege, President of Eurosolar said it was not viable in its original form because it was “too expensive and utopian.” Siemens, a founding shareholder withdrew and all other big names save for three abandoned ship. One question then emerges. What effect did this have on Africa? Did Africa lose an opportunity or it escaped being raped by Europe again?
It would seem the latter is true as Northern Africa has since taken the solar projects into its own hands with Morocco leading the way.In fact, on the 4th of February, King Mohammed VI commissioned Noor I, located 200 kilometres from Marrakesh. According to Deutsche Welle, the Noor Ouarzazate complex when completed in 2017 will become the largest Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant aiming to generate 500 Megawatts of electricity. In October 2014, Tunisia announced its TuNur project aiming to build ten CSP plants with a capacity of 200 Megawatts. It is now apparent that Africa can lead its own projects. While foreign investment might be essential, African leadership in the projects is essential to assure locals of benefitting. With the current Solar power drive in the North, it might also be time Sub-Saharan Africa caught on the fire and also implemented such projects to subsidise other forms of energy being used.
As Daniel Egbe, a World Bank evaluator said, “Africa has an acute energy problem. Only around 30% of Sub-Saharan Africans have access to electricity. Economic growth in Africa is now around 5.5%, but this is hampered by lack of energy. The presentations which were given in the past have arrows showing how energy will be funnelled to the North but there was no arrow pointing down to Sub-Saharan Africa.” With the Desertec exploitation out of Africa’s way, it is imperative that the continent lead its own charge to embracing cleaner energy and increasing access to electricity to aid economic growth.