The EU's Solar Science Fiction


"It's not the first time EU officials made promises they can't meet."

European officials are using science fiction to divert attention away from the block's institutional disarray or they've simply lost touch with reality in their Brussels bunker.

Why else would EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger predict that "some hundreds of megawatts" of solar power generated in the Sahara will be available in Europe within five years? That is beyond unrealistic, illustrating one of the EU's biggest problems—credibility.

The credibility gap was obvious last week when Oettinger met with the energy ministers of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia in Algiers. While in Algiers, he said he expects Europe to import solar-generated electricity from North Africa using underwater high-voltage cables. The project, known as the Desertec Industrial Initiative, will cost some $400 billion and aims to supply 15% of Europe's electricity using North African sun by 2050. That target may be achieved, but certainly not within five years.

It's not the first time EU officials made promises they can't meet. Over the past few years, Europeans have become notorious for making long-term commitments that fizzle. For instance, we are still waiting on Nabucco, the long-promised gas pipeline to import Central Asian supplies; biofuels are still an insignificant part of Europe's transport sector; meaningful gas and electricity interconnections are scarce and energy efficiency is little more than an empty political commitment.

In the futuristic realm, Europe's list of delayed or broken promises include carbon capture and storage, second-generation biofuels using non-food sources (algae and cellulose), "clean" coal and cheap renewable energy.

The challenges facing Desertec are formidable. Before the Saharan sun powers any European light bulbs, Algeria and Morocco need to resolve their decades-old border dispute; Europe needs to build a "smart" grid and regulate regional interconnections; subsidies need to be negotiated and dozens of governments need to agree on the trans-Mediterranean deal.

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