African Sunrise for Cleantech?

This week I’m going to break one of my self-imposed ‘blog’ rules and dip into last week’s news. My reasoning will become clear.

On Thursday I attended Envirolink North West’s Developing New Technologies for off Shore Wind event at the Met in Leeds. Apart from gaining a new respect for gearboxes (not to mention the humble bearing), I was struck by a presentation delivered by Dr. Mike Barnes of the University of Manchester and Siemens Transmission and Distribution arm.

In particular, he highlighted a ‘desertec’ vision for future energy generation, whereby huge swathes of African and Middle Eastern deserts are used for the generation of solar and wind energy. Drawing on commentary delivered by Matthias Ruchser and Stefan Gaenzle of the German Development Institute (Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik DIE) on Deutsche Welle, Dr Barnes outlined that, once technology and cost allows, Africa could become a major source of energy.

The Desertec project aims to feed solar power from Africa and the Middle East to the EU Thursday night brought a counter perspective at EcoConnect’s Green in the City Event: ‘Future of Solar’ at the London HQ of City law firm SNR Denton. Although heavily slanted towards the investment and banking community, these events always deliver a valuable and informed insight.

Expert panel member Paul McCartie of Investec Capital Markets dismissed ‘desertec’ as unworkable. Sighting “energy security” as the primary issue, he commented: “Following the recent problems caused by a dependency on Russian gas supplies, I can’t see Europe relying on energy generated in African and Middle Eastern nations.”

Good point. Would folks in Milton Keynes rely on a light switch powered by electricity generated in the Sudan?

Last week, Environment writers Louise Gray in the Telegraph and John Vidal in Guardian offered a hint as to what the future may hold.

Both reported on a controversial announcement from International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell MP that the Coalition Government was committing taxpayers’ money: “To encourage private investors to put their funds towards ‘green’ development projects in Africa and Asia.”  Mr Mitchell said: “In Africa, a potential new fund could see up to 500MW of renewable energy per year from 2015 – enough to provide for over 4 million rural households. In Asia the project could generate 5GW of new renewable energy and create 60,000 jobs.” he said.

Aid agencies greeted the news with immediate skepticism: Would private investors be doing this just to bring light and jobs to some of the most energy deficient and impoverished places on earth? Of course not, and Government wouldn’t expect them to.

So what’s going on here? Well, if the near ‘third-world’ is to be explored as a potential source of energy then this could be a sensible way to go – encourage investment under the guise of aid.  As for security, Matthias Ruchser and Dr. Stefan Gaenzle are of the opinion that: “renewable energy sources promote development, and development promotes security.”

So what leads us to believe that the development of African renewable energy will not be just an extension of the model followed by other large extractors of raw materials from the continent? The Angola and Nigerian oil fields are by no means models of security and progressive regional development.
Does renewable energy offer an opportunity for a new, fairer approach to international development, or will the same energy security problems prevail?

Guest Submission by David Innes-Edwards of Green Frontiers

2 replies
  1. Dave
    Dave says:

    Interesting points, but you miss the fact that Morocco is likely to be the most conducive place to back projects of the scale to meet these demands due to its ties with Europe and relative political stability. Africa is a big continent and Northern Africa comprises some countries with suitable will and means to create these outcomes (the cost of transmission withstanding).
    It's easy to be critical of Desertec and the issues with 'Africa' but that's a mass generalisation, have we forgotten that Russia is hardly the best choice for energy security, recently described courtesy of Wikileaks as a 'Kleptocracy, a virtual "mafia state" whose political parties operate "hand in hand" with organised crime.'. I don't hear too many Milton Keynes residents complaining while they brew a Tetley on a cold winters morning…

    • David Innes-Edwards
      David Innes-Edwards says:

      Thanks Dave, a very valid point. I suppose it's the problems presented by the Russian model that makes so many people nervous about Desertc as a concept. But you're right, so long as the lights come on, no really cares. Maybe consumers will gradually become more educated about the sources of their energy in the same way that they have with food in recent years?

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