Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Libya: Solar's Missing Link

An interesting article today in the New York Times on the Desertec North African solar project, which promises to harness the solar potential of the Sahara to provide Europe with guaranteed, clean, renewable energy. Under the DESERTEC proposal, concentrating solar power systems, photovoltaic systems and wind parks would be spread over the desert regions in Northern Africa like the Sahara and the Maghreb regions. Produced electricity would be transmitted to European and African countries by a super grid of high-voltage direct current cables. As much as 100 gigawatts could be produced and carried to the European mainland, around 15% of total energy requirements.

He's not the sun-king - Gadaffi blocks the new network
Desertec, it is argued, would be enough to help Europe meet its target of 20% of its energy being from renewable sources by 2020, especially when combined with other renewable sources easily tapped by the Continent, including on and offshore windfarms, barrages and ground sourced heat. The North African component is a key part of this project. And for Greens it is a controversial one too.

For while it offers to provide our Continent with clean energy, the political machinations surrounding it are substantial, and inevitably the Arab Spring poses many questions about how  and whether this project should proceed. At its core is an assumption, a need even, for the north African regimes to be friendly to Europe. From Egypt to Morocco, with the notable exception of Libya, the ancien regimes of Arab nationalism have been co-opted to provide solar sites and transmission for Europe. Hence, in part at least, the reluctance to call on Mubarak to go when the Tahrir Square demonstrations began, and the continuing support for some pretty reactionary and brutal governments, especially in Algeria.

Gadaffi's Libya opposes the planned Desertec network
It may also partly explain why the West is keen to see a new regime in Libya. Gadaffi, like his nemesis King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, has been no proponent of renewable energy. Libya has enjoyed a massive income from oil and while the solar project would doubtless convert sunlight into euros (or maybe preferably dollars), oil for now remains more profitable - indeed, tightening supplies in the years ahead promise ever higher dividends for the oil men. Consequently, Libya has declared itself officially not interested in Desertec and it has not been part of the project in spite of both its potential as a site for solar farms and its geographical centrality to the proposed solar network. Will a new Libyan regime, already in debt to Europe for its war funding, take a more emollient view of the renewable project?

Some have questioned the viability of the scheme, and many Greens have argued that it is simply not needed - smaller, more local or regional projects harnessing community and individual resources would, if fostered properly, produce enough for our needs. But the corporations that own and control our energy supplies think very differently - they want massive projects like Desertec so that their monopoly/oligopoly of energy supply will continue even beyond the age of oil. The Desertec organisation, a combination of no less than a dozen privately owned European energy companies, is no exception in spite of its green tinge - although set up as a not-for-profit foundation, its funders and partners, are private companies, making it in essence a "front company" for what is a large, profit seeking conglomerate.

By contrast, microgeneration projects, where communities and even individuals can use assets such as their homes to become producers as well as consumers of energy, threaten and actively undermine the grip of large corporate suppliers. This could well be one reason why the UK Government has effectively destroyed any prospect of significant community microgeneration by announcing the end of funding for most small scale projects.

So it is not just oil that drives energy wars and not just oil that multinational corporations seek to turn into saleable assets. Energy is key to a vast range of human activities, especially those regarded (albeit often rather questionably) as "civilised". As we stand on the threshold of a new age of clean, renewable energy, while we should not automatically turn our backs on large projects like the solar network, let's hope we can at least find politicians with the will to challenge energy companies that seek to prolong their stranglehold on the supply of such a vital resource, whether from fossil or renewable sources.

If we end up turning sunlight into a corporate commodity, what is next? Is only air sacred, or is that a dangerous question not to be asked?

Saudi Prince frets about the need to keep oil prices low to choke off renewable investment

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