Arab Spring helps Desertec's solar energy plan: CEO

BERLIN (Reuters) - The Arab Spring this year has given a boost to the world’s most ambitious solar project, which could be producing green electricity in the desert by 2015, the head of the body steering the 400 billion euro ($550 billion) scheme said.

Paul van Son, the managing director of the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), told Reuters that the awareness and interest in the project to turn sunshine into energy has grown with the spread of democracy across North African and the Middle East.

“It’s a positive thing,” said van Son, who heads the executive arm of the project that aims to supply up to 15 percent of Europe’s electricity demands by 2050 by using mirrors to harness the sun’s rays to produce steam and drive turbines.

“We like the Arab Spring because it has opened up a lot of ideas and generated support for the project,” van Son said in a telephone interview. “We’re very supportive. The democratic structures fit very well with ours.”

Before the Arab Spring, there had long been concerns about the political stability in the region.

The scheme was founded by mostly German companies in 2009.

DII’s goal is to analyze how to develop clean energy in the North Africa deserts that could supply power to the region as well as to Europe. Deserts get more energy in six hours than the world’s population consumes in a year, DII says.

Fields of mirrors in the desert would gather solar rays from concentrated solar power (CSP) to boil water, turning turbines to electrify a new carbon-free network linking Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Van Son said now that the fighting in Libya is over, a project like Desertec could help the economy and create jobs in the country and throughout the region, especially for young people.

He said he hopes Desertec can help bring Mediterranean nations closer together.

“Desertec is a project they’re understanding better and embrace,” van Son said. “I believe large infrastructure projects like this can contribute to stability. It’s about the development of new industries in the region, investment, job creation and the transfer of knowledge and know-how.”

Van Son said that a first power plant project of some 150 megawatts would be built in Morocco, possibly generating power by 2015 or 2016, with further projects planned in Tunisia and Algeria.

“Things are moving very quickly in Morocco,” he said. “We thought there would be more logistical problems. But that’s not been the case.”

DII is a product of the Desertec Foundation, a global network of governments, companies and think tanks that is exploring how to harness solar power in deserts.

The DII project has corporate backers from the energy, technology and construction sectors as well as banks and a reinsurer.

Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Anthony Barker