Environmentalists' dreams of a 100% renewable energy future are beginning to take shape in the deserts of the Middle East, according to leading industry experts. In an ambitious 400 billion plan, a pan-continental electricity supergrid powered by a chain of solar farms in the Arabian Gulf and North Africa would be linked to hydro-electric plants in Scandinavia and the European Alps, onshore and offshore wind farms in the Baltic and North Sea, along with marine energy and biomass power facilities.
"The Desertec plan by a consortium of European governments, non-governmental organisations and industrial corporations to provide 15% or more of Europe and the Middle East's electricity needs with solar power by 2050 is on a truly dramatic scale," said Anita Mathews, Exhibition Director of Middle East Electricity, the region's largest trade show for the power and energy sector now in its 36th year.
The main focuses of Middle East Electricity include power generation, transmission and distribution; commercial, industrial and residential lighting; water; as well as new, renewable and nuclear energy. More than 60% of exhibition space has already been sold for next year's event from 8 to 10 February 2011 at the Dubai International Exhibition Centre.
A map of Desertec's plan shows a chain of solar power plants throughout the Arabian Gulf linked by the supergrid to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa and into southern Europe. A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers also argued that Europe and North Africa could achieve "complete independence" from fossil fuels by 2050 and that all the technologies necessary are already in place.
Germany's Solar Millennium is on track to complete a 150 megawatt solar thermal plant in Egypt this year which is seen as a template for a series of Middle East and North Africa solar farms in the Desertec project. Morocco is also expected to be the site of further pilot schemes - a natural choice as the country is connected to Spain by a sub-sea electricity cable.
The Desertec initiative, which includes Munich Re, E.ON, Siemens and others alongside the non-profit Desertec Foundation, was established in Germany in 2009. Dr Gerhard Knies, Chairman of the foundation's supervisory board, recently pointed out: "Within six hours deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes within a year."
The Desertec initiative has given itself three years to set up a policy framework within the European Union and the Middle East and North Africa to adequately fund and transport renewable energy from the desert to Europe. "The biggest challenge, however, will be to secure the subsidies that will be necessary to allow renewable energy to become cost-competitive to fossil fuels," said Mathews.
"Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the Desertec plan illustrates that the world is waking up to the fact that the Middle East has the potential to become one of the foremost producers of renewable energy. The task is already underway with Abu Dhabi being home to the Masdar project the world's first carbon neutral city and the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency which is considering projects to produce solar and wind energy in the UAE and the rest of the Gulf.
"Saudi Arabia is also planning to become a solar energy exporter and is building its first solar powered desalination plant. Qatar is in serious talks with investors to build a US$1 billion solar power project. Solar projects are also at various stages of planning and implementation in Oman, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Iran and Iraq.
"But for Middle East countries to be part of the ambitious plans to export solar produced electricity to Europe they will first need to show they can share it among themselves with further development of the Gulf Co-operation Council grid and links to neighbouring Arab countries.
"One day, however, the sun may not only power the industries and buildings of the Middle East but also Europe, providing a new revenue stream and cutting back on the burning costly fuel oil, diesel