Supporters hailed the Desertec Industrial Initiative as the most ambitious solar energy project ever when it was founded in 2009. Major industrial backers pledged active involvement, politicians saw a win-win proposition and environmentalists fawned over Europe's green energy future. For a projected budget of €400 billion ($560 billion), the venture was to pipe clean solar power from the Sahara Desert through a Mediterranean super-grid to energy-hungry European countries.
Today, a scant three years later, there is still little to show for the project but the ambition.
The list of recent setbacks is daunting. 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.
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Political backing for energy from the desert, in other words, is evaporating.
The hurdles facing the project, to be sure, have always been high and have become more challenging in recent years. For one, political strains in North Africa have multiplied as the Arab Spring destabilized the political landscape in the region and, in some cases, reignited the historical distrust that exists among neighboring countries. Furthermore, energy needs in the Middle East and North Africa are growing even as a lack of experience and a challenging regulatory environment produce new challenges.
Finally, energy policy and security policy tend to go hand in hand. For all the initial enthusiasm, countries have been hesitant about plunging into a large, cooperative grid in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The result is a paucity of public investment funds.
"It's a shame," said Dr. Wolfgang Knothe, a co-founder of the Desertec Foundation, a non-profit organization which is a significant motor pushing the Desertec idea forward. "We should say we're closing the whole thing down because we have no political support."