Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Desert Dreams

It doesn't happen often that the words 'parliamentary hearing' and 'inspirational' go together. Indeed I was moved to laugh as I listened to the range of activities sponsored by our members this morning, which ranged from beer tasting to the place of Jesus in modern policy making and someone presenting a 'real' Austrian Christmas Tree to the President. Not exactly earthshattering stuff.

Something, however, did catch my eye and that something was 'Clean Power from Deserts', a conference co-hosted by the Greens, the Club of Rome and big business (another unusual combination). As I was feeling quite hungover after the two spectacular bottles of montepulciano consumed last night over dinner, I decided to go along for the duration and 'take notes' so I could retain the appearance of working without having to use my mind overly much.

On arrival, however, I was refreshed and surprised by the presentations- so surprised I even woke up and paid attention. The speakers were a range of scientists and politicians, notably the former head of the Club of Rome Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan. They were petitioning parliament to give its support to the DESERTEC concept for generating clean electricity and water, as outlined in a white paper published today.
The concept is remarkably simple and, I must say, stood up to some rigorous scrutiny from energy experts and sceptics in the audience at question time. Basically it relies on generating electricity from solar panels placed in the desert - large mirrors that face each other, reflecting sunlight that is then turned into energy.

It acts just like a usual coal powerstation, providing electricity on demand, security of supply, and storage capacity, but with an enhanced fuel, and thus, CO2, saving to reduce carbon emissions. It is tried, tested, and cheap to maintain. Most importantly it has the potential to provide more than double the projected energy demand for the EUMENA region (Europe, North Africa and the Middle East) by 2050, at lower relative prices than we currently pay.

So much for its environmental credentials. What about its political ones? Wouldn't locating the source of Europe's future energy reserves in an unstable Middle East at the time of a so-called 'clash of civilisations' be dowright stupid? Well, there are two answers to that according to the organisers.

The first is that we are already horribly dependent on dangerous oil rich nations, from Russia to Saudi Arabia. So no change there - although sceptics would say that one aspect of the drive towards renewables is Europe's energy autonomy.

The second is that interdependence on the energy front would improve peace and cooperation between the north and south Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum, or 'our sea', as the Romans called it, shouldn't be a cultural dividing line but a meeting place, and shared energy investment and infrastructure would concretise this.

Would it work? Look no further than the European Coal and Steel Community, which harmonised relations between France and Germany five years after the worst war in Europe's history. In 1945 citizens from those respective countries couldn't have a civil conversation, let alone get along. 50 years later, as politicians never fail to remind us, the EU has built peace and prosperity for 450 million Europeans. Why couldn't enhanced EUROMED cooperation do the same for the EUMENA region?

Good questions indeed. So why has DESERTEC been so slow to catch on? Why, amidst the general handwringing about climate changed and Middle East peace has this apparent miracle-cure attracted so little political support? It was first mooted back in the 1970s, for heaven's sake, and has been tried and tested in California for the last twenty years. Plants are being built in Morocco and Spain. It has been earmarked for EU pilot funding for the last decade. But it has never really taken off.

MEPs blamed lack of support from industry; lack of interest from the powers that be - as was, of course, the case for environmental policy in general until a few years ago; a powerful, and growing, nuclear lobby; and cynicism about investing in an unstable Maghreb and Middle East.

That's why they called for politicians across Europe to give their vocal and consistent support to this project. For the true costs to be put forward and - if acceptable - part funded by the EU budget and part from government backed tariff systems, such as those used so successfully in Germany to stimulate new markets, that guarantee long term investment and reassure private investors.
A symbolic gesture might also be called for. For me, the most poignant and pragmatic idea put forward was to fund a pilot solar plant in Gaza, currently experiencing dreadfully electricity and water shortages, to show both what this technology is capable of and how it could help heal the rifts between people. I hope you agree.

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