A plan to turn the desert sunshine of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) into electricity, both for the region and for export to Europe, has been criticized for ignoring the needs of local people and the science community.
Critics say that the Desertec Industrial Initiative's (Dii) centralized, top-down approach means that electrification may not benefit the desert people and may stifle capacity-building in the region's science community.
They were speaking on the sidelines of the Solar Energy for Science Symposium in Germany this week (19–20 May), held to push the project forward and explore the potential for scientific collaborations between Europe and MENA.
The symposium was organised by the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), with Egypt's Academy of Scientific Research and Technology and the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), in Jordan.
Desertec aims to harness the huge solar and wind resources across the deserts of MENA, delivering up to 15 per cent of Europe's electricity needs by 2050 via high-voltage transmission lines.
Feasibility studies are on the way after which funding of up to US$400 billion will be sought.
Hamed El-Mously, chairman of the Egyptian Society for Endogenous Development of Local Communities, said the project was ignoring the wishes of local people.
Desert people have not been consulted about their energy needs — despite the fact that a mix of energy options may be more appropriate than a single, large powerplant, he said.
And the swathes of desert needed for such plants will take away the land that many nomadic and pastoral societies use for their livelihoods, he said.
"Desertec is a top-down approach, in both senses — North-to-South and governments-to-local-communities. There is much more needed to engage the communities."
Meanwhile, academics expressed fears that the project would not boost MENA science.
"It is not good for Tunisian researchers," said Samir Romdhane, a professor at the Tunisian Physical Society. The technology will be imported from abroad with little opportunity for MENA researchers to develop. It is not an idea that came from the region, but from a consortium of German firms, he said.
And Abdelfattah Barhdadi, physics professor at Ecole Normale Superieure de Rabat, in Morocco, said that, although there are many experts in the area who could contribute to the development of Desertec, there has "not been enough effort on the behalf of the project to consult them".
A supporter of the project, Odeh Al-Jayyousi, regional director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in Jordan, also called for more local engagement.
"We need to promote multi-stakeholder dialogue and bottom-up approaches, and we need to plan with the people not for the people".
Referring to the wave of unrest this year known as the Arab Spring, which has raised concerns about the viability of Desertec, he said: "This wave of democracy will nurture new ideas.
"I think we need this type of big idea that will cross national boundaries and induce a new model of development."
Suhil Kiwan, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Jordan University of Science and Technology and a co-founder of the Desertec University Network, insisted that the project will develop the region's science. Both the original idea and the idea for the university network came from the region's scientists, he said. The export of electricity to Europe will only be the last step.
The aim of the conference was to stimulate new scientific research partnerships between European and MENA institutions, in order to promote renewable energies and sustainable development. It brought together scientists, ministers and stakeholders from both regions — mainly Egypt, Germany and Jordan.
The conference, attended by more than 200 people from over 35 countries, concluded that concentrated solar power generation is already technically feasible and economically sound, and the costs are competitive with fossil fuel electricity generation — so stakeholders in both regions should carry on working to make the project a reality. The conclusions acknowledged a suggestion from an Egyptian delegate to create a regional centre of excellence in solar science.
But there was no consensus on achieving the right balance between the contributions of different stakeholders, the funding mechanism, and whether to involve Sub-Saharan African countries in the project.
The initiative's next conference will take place in Cairo later this year (2–3 November).
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