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Hunting Unicorns in the Sahara

A huge solar energy project in North Africa, intended to transmit electricity to Europe, is now in serious jeopardy. Germany’s Spiegel reports on Desertec’s imminent demise:

The project has failed to break ground on a single power plant. Spain recently balked at signing a declaration of intent to connect high-voltage lines between Morocco and the rest of Europe. In recent weeks, two of the biggest industrial supporters at the founding of the initiative, Siemens and Bosch, backed out. And perhaps most tellingly, though last week’s third annual Desertec conference was held in Berlin’s Foreign Ministry, not a single German cabinet minister bothered to attend.

Desertec’s supporters say the project can’t be financially viable without taxpayer money, but German government investment hasn’t come through. “We should say we’re closing the whole thing down because we have no political support,” said Dr. Wolfgang Knothe, a co-founder of the Desertec Foundation.

Even if funding were plentiful, geopolitical problems make the plan seem like a pipe dream. Libya can barely govern itself, northern Mali is under the control of terrorists, and the rest of North Africa doesn’t look ready to protect vast swathes of solar panel-covered desert. Europe has its own problems too, of course, and constructing an “ultramodern” renewable energy grid doesn’t seem to be on the top of its to-do list.

Like other green initiatives, Desertec sounds good on paper and excites the imagination of progressive renewable energy scientists and politicians, but reality—whether political or financial—makes it nearly impossible. For the foreseeable future, the Saharan sun won’t be captured to power toaster ovens in Europe.

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