An ambitious plan to supply around 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity needs by building hundreds of solar and wind power plants in the deserts of North Africa has been given a real chance of becoming reality with its formal launch by a consortium of predominantly European companies.

Twelve firms – including RWE, E.On, ABB, Abengoa Solar, Schott Solar and Siemens – have signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), which will analyse and develop the technical, economic and political framework for the project.

The EUR400 billion plan envisages the construction of hundreds of solar thermal power plants and wind farms in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt as well as across the Middle East, and transmitting the power generated to Europe through a high voltage direct current (HVDC) network. The plan is not without its critics, however.

The concept was developed by the Club of Rome and is also supported by Deutsche Bank, HSH Nordbank, MAN Solar Millennium and Munich Re. The aim is to produce sufficient power to meet 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity requirements as well as a substantial portion of the power needs of the producer countries by 2050.

The project’s backers say that Desertec would enhance energy security in European countries as well as in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. It would also bring the benefits of substantial private investment and growth and development opportunities to MENA.

Generating renewable energy in the earth’s desert regions, which receive more energy in six hours than mankind consumes in a whole year, makes economic sense, according to Desertec.

“Desertec is a visionary project that can make a substantial contribution to sustainable power supply in the future energy mix,” stated René Umlauft, CEO of the Renewable Energy Division at Siemens Energy. “The Desertec project unites sustainability, technological competence and visionary entrepreneurship.”

“Northern Africa and the Middle East are undoubtedly areas with a tremendous solar energy potential, for both the region’s own use as well as exporting as soon as we have the necessary infrastructure and regulatory measures in place,” said Santiago Seage, CEO of Abengoa Solar. “This initiative should bring us closer to making this vision come true.”

The project has been criticised, most notably by German MP Hermann Scheer, who is president of Eurosolar and General Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy.

Scheer has argued that the current cost projections of the project are not realistic, and that it could actually harm energy security in Europe because the transmission lines would be targets for terrorist attacks. In addition, says Scheer, rising electricity demand in MENA means that by the time the project is operational, there will be little excess capacity available for export to Europe.