»Desertec is not a quick fix«
Interview: Daniel Gerlach
Paul van Son, chairman of the »Desertec« initiative, explains how the countries in North Africa can get involved and hesitant investors be convinced – and when European households can expect electricity from the desert.
zenith: Mr. van Son, are the Arab Spring and the political upheavals in North Africa making you nervous when you think of the future of Desertec?
Paul van Son: Although it may seem astounding, the political changes have not really affected Desertec. Our partners in the North African countries are still the same. And our point of departure hasn’t changed either: the population of the Arab countries is growing, and it is young. Energy needs are rising. So people there need new prospects for the future of energy.
Morocco is the most developed of the countries in terms of its legal framework. And yet you just opened a liaison office in Tunis. Why Tunisia?
When you want to build something new, you always need to attract more attention than you do for something that already exists. In principle, we want to set up bases in all the countries that are of interest for Desertec. After Morocco, Tunisia is the second place where we are laying the groundwork for Desertec. And it also plays an interesting role for the network infrastructure because of it geographic proximity to Italy.
Will the Tunisia-Italy connection be more important for Desertec than Morocco-Spain?
Well, the latter connection is already there. Two cable harnesses have already been laid. But in the long run, a connection between Tunisia and Italy will be just as important.
previously energy manager in different companies, was appointed as the CEO of the »Desertec industrial initiative« (Dii) GmbH. Dii consists of 56 shareholders and associate partners from 15 countries from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Algeria, the largest country in North Africa, seems to take a sceptical view of Desertec. It currently looks as though they are planning to undertake a rival project. How do you deal with this?
I don’t agree with that assessment. Algeria is in fact doing exactly what we are envisioning. The country is developing its own concepts, plans and ideas. The Algerians are asking themselves: How can we establish an industry on our own? Is it worthwhile to export the electricity? We can complement each other quite well. And in this regard, my talks with the Algerian energy minister went quite well. But of course, the structure in Algeria is completely different than in Tunisia or Morocco: the country is able to export oil and gas and can therefore set different priorities.
After the uprising in Libya began, did you start thinking about including that country in your strategy?
We are only laying the groundwork for a business that in principle anyone can participate in if they want to. In the long term, Libya might choose to do so.
Everyone thinks renewable energies are a great idea, at least at first. But more sober views are now starting to prevail. The large-scale project Masdar City in Abu Dhabi for example – the first carbon-dioxide-free city – has encountered major problems in meeting expectations.
Everyone knows that beginnings are hard. And yet someone has to take the first shot. In the Gulf States, renewables have by no means failed: not only Abu Dhabi, but also Saudi Arabia is investing in such technologies.
Without being cynical, we can definitely say that the atomic catastrophe in Fukushima has revived interest in renewable energies and in forward-looking projects like Desertec – similar to what it has done for the Green Party in Germany. The nuclear phase-out planned by the German government is playing right into your hands. How long will the enthusiasm for solar power and other alternatives last?
I indeed do not find it cynical when I say that we have gotten a global wake-up call. A positive kind of rethinking is taking place – that will persist because we can’t simply turn back the clock anymore.
There’s no love lost between the North African states – your cooperation partners. There are deep political rifts for example between Morocco and Algeria. Do you have a concept that applies to the entire region?
Of course, we have our eyes on the whole area. We don’t directly address the political conflicts between our partners when negotiating. Don’t forget, though: when it comes to energy policy, Morocco and Algeria are already cooperating; their electricity grids are already coupled and both countries are exchanging energy.
When will we here in Germany get our first solar power from the Sahara?
Electricity will start flowing from the desert to Europe by 2014.
It’s probably not quite that simple.
Well, you might find it hard to believe, but the actual date is not important to us at all. Desertec is not a quick fix. We don’t want to hastily cobble something together, but are thinking in the long term instead.
Would the investors agree?
Who will actually own the solar plants in the Sahara? And who will operate them?
Those are still open questions. After all, there is still no cohesive and matured market. Desertec requires public support and private investors, so-called public-private partnerships.
In the wake of the financial crisis and now with the euro-zone crisis, the willingness of many European nations to contribute to financing Desertec has not exactly increased.
Money is always tight; it was already that way before the crisis. But energy is also tight – and becomes even tighter without investments.
Do you feel that you have adequate support from the German government? One year ago, many complaints were still coming from industry claiming that politics had a different set of priorities.
Last year we did in fact doubt Berlin’s resolve. But we no longer have anything to complain about.
What is the present state of development of Desertec? Are you on schedule?
Personally, I find that we’re moving ahead even faster than planned. In 2010 we drew up a two-year strategic plan. It was critical that all the required governments would endorse Desertec. Since mid-2011, that has already happened. Our reference project Masen in Morocco is scheduled to go into operation at the end of 2014.
Desertec is mostly being driven forward by Germany. As a Dutchman, you come from a country that has plenty to offer in the field of future technologies. Where are the Dutch on this project?
In my day …
… You were formerly director for Germany at the Dutch energy supplier Essent …
… the Dutch were still world champions in innovation for renewable energies. But nowadays, other countries have taken the lead. But perhaps that’s only temporary. The Netherlands has the same opportunities on the market as Germany.