The intensity of the sun in this part of the world has lured Hollywood filmmakers for decades.
Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, among many others, were shot in and around the Middle East and North Africa (Mena). Now the region is attracting energy firms.
The Desertec project initiated in Germany has a tantalising dream: to generate limitless amounts of cheap, green energy by harnessing the sun and the wind in the deserts of the Mena region.
The aim of the world’s most ambitious solar power plan is for Europe to import up to a fifth of its electricity from solar and wind parks in the region by 2050.
“A vision can be more concrete than just a dream. It can be a political vision,” says Michael Koehler, a senior official in the European Union’s energy commission.
Among countries in the Mena region interested in the project, Morocco has high hopes for solar power.
“We are convinced that this energy is the future for us,” Abdelkader Amara, the Moroccan industry minister, told the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The country currently imports 95 per cent of its energy. By 2020, it wants renewable energy to account for 40 per cent of its own power generation – and thereby to cut the amount it spends on importing fossil fuels by US$ 500 million (Dh1.83 billion) a year. Exporting solar power to Europe will open a further revenue stream for Morocco.
And one solar plant, being built in cooperation with Acwa Power of Saudi Arabia, will generate a projected 160 megawatts purely for Morocco’s domestic energy needs.
It is all a part of Desertec’s vaunting ambition. When completed, its plants in the region are expected to cover an area of 10,460 square kilometres, about a fifth of the UAE’s total area, and produce 1,064 terawatt hours, almost enough energy to power the whole of Germany for two years.
But until recently the vision of quenching Europe’s thirst for energy with dazzling solar plants in the desert had begun to look like a mirage.
Critics in Europe dismissed the €400 billion (Dh1.86 trillion) venture as too expensive, too risky and too bold.
Then the euro crisis struck the continent and cash-strapped governments were too preoccupied with slashing budgets to be able to devote taxpayers’ money to a Saharan adventure.
The Arab Spring initially made the plan seem even more risky and with European solar technology firms hit by falling government subsidies for photovoltaic power and overwhelming competition from China, companies have been reluctant to invest aggressively in the project.
In a further blow, the German industrial heavyweight Siemens, one of the founding members of Desertec’s business consortium Dii, said last month it was pulling out of the group and selling its loss-making solar energy business.
Three years after Dii was founded, not a single concrete Desertec project has been realised.
But that may be about to change, despite all the setbacks.
The governments of Germany, France, Italy, Morocco and Spain are close to reaching an agreement on the construction of a €600 million, 150MW solar power plant near the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate in the Western Sahara and on feeding electricity from it into the European grid.
Dii had hoped that a memorandum of understanding between the countries could be signed at Desertec’s annual conference in Berlin last week. But the agreement had to be postponed because Spain, one of the nations hardest hit by the euro-zone crisis, has yet to agree.
“I’m confident that the other partners in this negotiation, from Morocco and the EU states, will be able to convince Spain soon as Spain could profit a lot,” Paul van Son, the Dii chief executive, said this month.
If Desertec’s Moroccan project gets the go-ahead, it will take two to four years to build and will be the first phase of a plant that will end up producing 500MW and cost up to €2bn.
The plant would be a breakthrough for Dii, which consists of more than 55 companies and organisations from 16 countries and is a product of the Desertec Foundation, a global network of governments, companies and think tanks that has been exploring how to generate solar power in deserts. Dii is based in Munich, with branches in Morocco and Tunisia.
An international deal would remove legal and administrative obstacles to feeding electricity from Africa into the nationally fragmented European grid.
Klaus Schmidtke, a Dii spokesman, says companies in the Desertec consortium, which include ABB, Munich Re, Abengoa, Deutsche Bank, RWE, Enel, Saint-Gobain and Acwa Power, were ready to put up €200m towards the Moroccan plant.
National governments and international organisations would come up with the rest of the funding, he says.
The solar-thermal power plant will use mirrors that collect the sun’s heat and produce steam to drive turbines that generate electricity.
Desertec plans further plants in Algeria and Tunisia. It says now that the political turmoil in those countries has died down, the Arab Spring has led to stronger demand for growth in renewable energy generation.
“There’s increasing interest because these countries know that their populations will grow sharply in the coming decades and that energy needs will increase as a result,” says Mr Schmidtke.
German companies are also starting to feel encouraged by the increasing international interest in solar power.
Saudi Arabia is committed to becoming a solar powerhouse so that it can lessen its own oil consumption and export more of it. The kingdom has said it aims to fill a third of its electricity needs through solar power and plans to invest more than $ 100bn by 2032 to achieve that goal.
Algeria plans to rely on renewable energy, most of it solar, for 40 per cent of its needs by 2030.
The UAE also has major solar plans. Abu Dhabi plans to launch its $ 600m Shams 1 concentrated solar power plant by the end of this year. It will have the capacity to produce 100MW of power.
Mr Schmidtke says he could imagine companies in the UAE joining Desertec in the future.
Europe, for its part, has signalled it is determined to make progress with Desertec.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has raised the prospect of financial, legal and practical support.
“Trade in renewables between northern Africa and Europe is no longer just a dream. It is declared EU policy,” says Mr Koehler.