Solar energy at the centre of an economic storm

It’s been just a year since the Afro-European solar energy initiative was launched to harness the deserts of North Africa to supply European countries with clean, renewable energy.

Yesterday afternoon, a meeting of the OAEEC (the Organization of African Energy Exporting Countries) voted to turn off Europe’s energy supply unless new immigration rights for their citizens were agreed.

What had seemed such a sensible green investment for a consortium of twenty European blue-chip companies, headed by Munich Re, has turned into a political football unprecedented since Russian gas stand-offs more than a decade ago.

The premise was simple: 0.3% of the sunlight falling on north African and Middle East deserts is enough to provide all of Europe’s energy – all we have to do is concentrate it via farms of focused mirrors to drive steam turbines and get the electricity to where it is needed.

Germany, the European leader in solar energy, took the initiative to involve several of the EU majors to create the European Energy Consortium, originally called Desertec, in 2010.

Although the primary target countries, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and the UAE, were all considered ‘politically stable’ at the start of the project, political conditions in North Africa have changed so abruptly that this is in danger of turning into a new cold war for hot energy.

“Cheap energy is one thing,” said the OAEEC’s Ben Lamir yesterday, “but we also have to provide the ability for our people to have access to the job opportunities in the EU.”

A new round of negotiations is sure to follow – but the politics of clean energy are sure to trump everything else. Like the OPEC of history, the energy producers hold all the cards.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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