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Tunisia: The future is solar!

It’s probably the energy project of the century. The Desertec project is currently mobilizing multinational companies, engineers, policy makers, financial market and banks. It’s about plants due to be built around and in the Sahara to produce, store and transfer energy to Europe.

One of the major stakeholders of the  projects, Bernd Utz, director of the Project Desertec within German society Siemens outlined the initiative  during an international meeting  recently held in the city of Seville , Spain. Interview:

Could you outline the Desertec project where Siemens is deeply involved?

 Siemens has been one of the cofounders of the Desertec industry initiative, a consortium which is kind of company that tries to work on the implementation plan for the Desertec , a  concept, an idea that came from the club of Rome. We can work on the business plans and the regular framework for the building of power plants as well as the green power located in the MENA and European  region which are preferred   for export of electricity to Europe. This is the main goal of that initiative.  Some major companies from Germany, Spain, and Algeria and hopefully from more and more countries around the Mediterranean are involved in.

Did you set a date for the launch and the implementation of the project?

We haven’t set a date for the implementation

Do you have estimates?

I’ve estimates. I think that, for the next 2 or 3 years, we will  be probably more or less working on the regular framework that is required to attract investment for such project and also to work out the plans how to do that with the countries, the sites for such plants as soon as this business plan is finished and maybe some private projects identified. Then, we can start implementing first projects. So probably, facing construction time of a couple years, we may see the first plan by 2020 in operation.

Do you have a short list of the countries that will receive the facilities?

It’s difficult to have a short list. We see interest from many countries, naturally countries that already have been acquainted with solar power ,  such as Tunisia for example,   and countries from the Middle East and North African region.

You have certainly launched a road show to sensitize the financial market and banks to the project. What is the feedback?

The financial market is very sensitized to the project. We have financial institutions that are involved in the initiative, namely huge banks, national insurance companies. So there is sensitivity to the project, but there is  some “wait and see”, there is also a couple of needs   to see clear regularly framework to make an investment decision. This is what we will be working on.

Did you check some reluctance from banks?

We haven’t seen yet any real reluctance. It could be an interesting investment case and it’s more like a general interest .Investment bodies are interested in seeing opportunities provided by the project.

What about governments?

We are talking with governments in the Mediterranean region. Of course, there is a strong interest in the overall concept. But there are also questions raised especially at the level of North African countries:   what is the value-add for local development, the job creation, what is the economic development that comes with this initiative? We try our best to show the potential case where we can have a lot of local development.

What is the average of job creation for North African countries following the launch of this project?

I can’t give you a figure on that. We have a lot of job creation in the construction phase of power plants, some more qualified jobs in the operation phase which is a phase of 20 years and more. So definitely, setting up such plans and operating them over years is a major force for economic development and job creation. But I can’t tell you a specific figure on that.

Technically, do you think that the project is perfectly feasible?

From a technical point of view, I would say it’s perfectly feasible. It depends a little bit on the sites we might need where we have to qualify some components for specific application, but it’s technically feasible .it’s the technology used for that project that is proved  in various markets. So probably, it’s comfortable to say that it’s feasible.

And do you expect that Europe will not depend, in the long run, on fossil energy?

I would see a sustainable energy mix in the next decade and I think that, for sustainable energy production, we need all packs of the energy mix.

Are you involved as well in wind energy?

Yes, definitely. We are one of the major suppliers of wind turbines with a special focus on offshore installations.

Can you tell me something about technology which should be used in Desertec project?

In terms of Desertec, the concept is very much technology open. So, it includes green power solar power of various technologies decided for this concept. There is a certain attitude to have to store energy not power but feed energy; and if you want to have a major feed into the grid from solar resources, you have to control a little bit the production and when you feed in.

Storage and transport seem to be a crucial problem…

The storage helps integrating renewable energy into grids, especially if you have a high level of renewable in feed.  There is a solution for this.It’s a feasible solution and it makes the solar power “dispatchable”. It’s much easier then storing electricity. It’s really good and universal technology to store electricity right now and there is certainly more development to be seen in the next decade.

The technology that will be used should be multinational or only German?

The technology development is already multinational. We are now increasing partnership with North African countries and some activities in Egypt, for example, including some research in a couple of things.  They started with academic institutions, and certainly in Tunisia, there are some ambitions. So this should be done in getting partnerships.

What are the main benefits of this project for Europe and other countries?

I think the main benefit for some North African countries like Tunisia is that, in first time, there is more available renewable energy. So, it’s just having more power into the grid which could help meet the increasing demand. On the second, it’s creating jobs, creating qualified jobs; it’s creating economic development skills. In the third row, it can open a channel for export and revenues from export which is helpful for development.

If we can contribute to reaching the challenge by importing some of the renewable energy, I think it’s a win win situation for development.         

Do you believe deeply that the future will be” renewable energy”?

I think that renewable will grow over proportionally. We will have, for the next decade, to address the cost as well as the capability to have a regulatory power you cannot replace for the next decade but you will see certainly a shift to more renewable energy and in a long run rather in a short time.                                                  

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