11/28/2012 10:03 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

The Doha Climate Talks and an Interview With DESERTEC Foundation Director, Dr. Thiemo Gropp

I began writing about renewable energy following the earthquake and severe damage at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant as part of a search for a better way to dramatically reduce C02 emissions, and also move away from more nuclear energy. I discovered for the first time that there was a nonprofit organization called the DESERTEC Foundation promoting what seemed to be an intelligent solution for a worldwide transition to renewable energy by harnessing the power of the world's deserts. I had the opportunity to interview its director last week about the Doha Climate talks and recent reports that political and economic obstacles in Europe might slow the realization of his organization's dream of desert power.


DESERTEC is a globally applicable set of solutions for climate protection, energy and water security and development. They were developed by a group of politicians, scientists and economists from around the Mediterranean who called themselves the TREC network. The DESERTEC Foundation emerged out of that network in 2009. Our ideas demonstrate how we can make a global transition to renewables by harnessing renewable sources of energy where they are at their strongest. In the best locations, renewable power plants and wind farms can produce more power and can therefore replace fossil fuel generation more quickly for less money. This power can then be transported to the centers of demand by using High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission. HVDC can transport electricity generated from renewables over long distances with losses of just 3 percent per 1,000 kilometers. If the resource is good enough, it more than justifies the investment in transmission.

Why do you focus on the deserts?

We don't only focus on deserts. Our main point is that energy is available in abundance and we have all the technologies -- proven and ready to be rolled out -- that we need to harness it. The deserts play a special role because they are so incredibly rich in renewable energy and because land is available. Within six hours, the world's deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes within a year. In combination with other renewables in other locations they offer us the best chance of leaving polluting fossil fuels behind us for good.

You helped to found an industrial initiative to push the implementation of your ideas in EU-MENA forward. However, two big German companies, Siemens and Bosch, recently decided not to renew their membership of the industrial initiative. How big a blow is this to the project?

We helped set up the industrial initiative Dii in 2009 because we believe the private sector's role in the implementation of the DESERTEC vision is absolutely essential. We remain fully convinced that this is the right approach. Dii has done some great work in moving things forward in their focus region of EU-MENA. It is true that there has been some bad publicity recently because Siemens and Bosch have pulled out. This is less a reflection on the idea of desert power than on the solar industry at the moment. Competition is fierce and some companies are refocusing their efforts elsewhere. Some companies will even go bust. This is not unusual. If a car company went bust and someone claimed it was the end of the auto industry you'd think they were mad. Well, renewables will be just as ubiquitous as the car in decades to come. They represent our only realistic chance for any kind of energy future. Siemens has reached some conclusions on the chances of its solar technology in the current market in the short term and taken appropriate measures. They may enter the market again in the future. In the meantime, other manufacturers will take their place.

Journalists tend to focus on the fate of particular companies or projects, but for us what is most important is the vision. That's why we find the recent press coverage a little misleading. The western media is fixated on the issue of the export of desert power from North Africa to Europe. This ignores the fact that the vast majority of desert power in this region will be needed for rising demand in MENA countries and that the EU-MENA region is just one of many where DESERTEC's solutions can and are being implemented. DESERTEC is not just a project for the export of renewable power to Europe. It is a vision for a more stable and prosperous world. It shows how we can achieve more in terms of climate protection by working together.

So it isn't true, as many press reports have suggested, that the dream of desert power is over?

Absolutely, not! If you look to the Sahara, the Kalahari, the Arabian, the Mojave, the Atacama and Gobi deserts you will find renewable energy projects in operation or under construction. Saudi Arabia announced earlier this year that it will build 54GW of renewables including 25GW of concentrating solar power, 16GW of PV and 9GW wind, as well as renewable-powered desalination. This is a ringing endorsement of our solutions. With major European financial support the first part of Morocco's 500MW Ouarzazate solar complex is on the way.

We are proud to have spread these ideas and will support governments around the world to implement them. We will focus on the regions of EU-MENA, East Asia and South America and, eventually, worldwide. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who builds the plants as long as they are built in the right way and they get built.

The 18th UN Climate Change Conference is taking place in Doha. What, in your opinion, needs to happen there?

I am worried that negotiations won't progress and that the focus on global consensus leads us to a dead end. I would love to see a coalition of those willing and committed to funding solutions from which all parties will benefit. The "Green Climate Fund" could help here, but it needs to start distributing funds as soon as possible. If we haven't taken decisive steps by 2020, it will be far too late to prevent dangerous climate change.

Another alternative might be to focus on already existing funds to provide the transitional support that renewable technologies need to displace fossil fuels. The World Bank released a report last week on the terrible consequences of climate change and called on governments around the world to redirect the $1 trillion spent overall every year on fossil fuels and other harmful subsidies to developing alternative energy sources. This is a great proposal. The only problem is that although the World Bank invests significant amounts in climate protection, it also invested more than $12 billion in fossil fuels in the last six years. That's public funds subsidizing climate change! It's insanity! The money is there. If the world's development banks or export credit agencies took our climate into account when investing public money it would unleash an incredible amount of investment in renewable technologies.

That amount of money could massively accelerate the process of bringing the cost of renewable technologies like concentrating solar power (CSP) down. We talk a lot about this technology because it can supply electricity on demand day and night. That makes it an ideal complement to intermittent energy sources such as wind and photovoltaic power. Increasingly, in more and more locations wind and PV are cheaper than the conventional alternatives. CSP allows you to incorporate a higher percentage of these cheap intermittent renewables in your energy mix.

We have the solutions. All that's lacking is the political will.