Huge-scale Saharan solar energy project could provide Spain with electricity by 2015

Desertec Industrial Initiative scheduled to get underway in Morocco before spreading east to Egypt and beyond

The grandest renewable energy project of the modern age, Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), is scheduled to get underway in Morocco next year and, if its deadlines are met, is meant to start supplying Spain with solar-powered electricity between 2015 and 2016.

The project, spearheaded by German companies E.ON, Siemens and Deutsche Bank - with participation from the Spanish grid operator Red Eléctrica and Italian and French firms - will eventually consist of a sea of solar panels in the Sahara stretching from Morocco to Egypt.

Germany has set itself the goal of dispensing with nuclear energy by 2022 as a result of the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan. "We like the 'Arab Spring' because it has brought about a lot of ideas and given rise to a lot of backing for the project," Paul van Son, executive director of Deserted, told Reuters. "I believe that big infrastructure projects can contribute to stability."

The plants, the first of which is to be built at Ouarzazate in central Morocco, will consist of thousands of mirrors to direct the sun's rays onto tubes filled with oil, which in turn will heat water. The vapor will propel turbines to produce electricity 24 hours a day that will be transported to Europe through high-tension cables.

In six hours, the Sahara receives as much solar energy as is consumed in a year by the entire planet. By 2050, it is estimated DII could supply 15 percent of Europe's entire energy needs.

In the shorter term, from 2015 part of this energy will be sold on the Moroccan market and part in Spain, which currently relies heavily on Algerian gas exports.

The choice of Morocco for the inaugural phase of the project - made, according to Desertec, because it is stable, has already begun its own renewables program and is linked to Europe via two submarine cables - was not received well in Algeria, which has the largest expanse of desert in North Africa and was the first point of contact when Desertec began making inquiries in the region. That Morocco was selected "illustrates the chaotic management on this matter by the Algerian authorities," according to the website Tout Sur l'Algérie, which also recalled the contrasting messages from the government. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country's president, was open to the project but his energy minister, Youcef Yousfi, was hesitant at first.

"Morocco did not steal this project from us," Nureddine Bouterfa, president of Algerian electricity supplier Sonelgaz, told national radio. "Morocco needs energy and we are not in the same situation as that country."

In any case, Algeria and Tunisia are Desertec's priority nations to sign up to the project next, with Libya, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey expected to follow later, at which point the grand design will extend across the entire Sahara.

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