Desertec project

A mirage in the desert?

Large European companies were planning to invest hundreds of billions of euros in transporting solar energy from North Africa to Europe as part of the Desertec initiative. But now there is disagreement as to what strategic direction the project should take. Could this be the end of the road?

High-tech in the desert – the name Desertec says it all. The idea is to safeguard the energy supply in Europe and North Africa using electricity from renewable sources and high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) technology. The idea caused a sensation and met with widespread approval when the Desertec Foundation was established four years ago. Shortly afterwards, major firms such as reinsurance giant Munich Re, Deutsche Bank and Siemens joined forces to form the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii).

But now the project is on the line. Infighting and the lack of consensus regarding strategic issues are causing conflict. Big companies such as Bosch and Siemens have already left the industrial conglomerate Dii. And now even the Desertec Foundation has backed out of it.

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At first glance, it is almost impossible for outsiders to distinguish the truth from the misperceptions, rumours and intrigue. Even broadsheets such as the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” have spoken of an attempted coup when reporting on the recent dismissal of Dii managing director Aglaia Wieland.  

Elsewhere in the media there have been frequent reports of serious disagreements and intense personal dislike between the two managing directors Paul van Son and Aglaia Wieland. Viewed from the outside, the cause and development of these disputes are difficult to discern.

However, some facts can be extracted from the chaos. There is conflict in Dii over its future strategy. The original idea envisaged renewable sources in North Africa being used to generate electricity. Most of the electricity was to be used to support economic development in the North African countries. A smaller proportion was to be exported to Europe via high-voltage direct-current cables. This was intended to cover up to 20 percent of Europe’s electricity demand.

A faction within Dii wants to scale down the project. Van Son believes that the export plans should be dropped for the time being and the concrete projects in North Africa should be used to stabilise the national power supplies in the region. Aglaia Wieland, on the other hand, stood by the original concept of generating electricity for North Africa and Europe. For this argument to be upheld, it needs to be shown that the transmission of electricity across thousands of kilometres is feasible – and that it makes economic sense.

This is an abridged version of the article – the complete text is available in issue 5/2013 of new energy.

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