By Hannes Artens
The EU is on the drip of foreign fossil fuels, and our complacency to resign ourselves to the status of a life-long addict will be our undoing. Geo-politically, we’re dependent on the good-will and pragmatism of great powers such as Russia, with whom our future relations remain questionable at best, and dubious or unstable regimes in increasingly violent parts of the world beyond our control. This self-defeating state of dependence gives others too great a leverage over our politics, and leaves us prone to the caprices of the global commodity market, whose roller-coaster volatility we’ve come to see over the last eighteen months.
Ideologically, we dissipate our drive for reform in pseudo-debates, such as the umpteenth revival of a European constitution, that remain aloof of the day-to-day worries of our citizens and lack a compelling narrative about what actually the perks of belonging to the European Union are. Our greatest asset in foreign relations, our “soft power”, the attractiveness of the European model as a unique venture for shared peace and prosperity for 27+ nations, comes across as threadbare and hollow, as all we can show up with at present is disunity, deadlock, and desultoriness.
As with our aging population the EU is increasingly falling behind in the global race for cutting edge technologies. The EU, once the vanguard of environmental conscience and the most steadfast apologist of the Kyoto benchmarks, is not only shamefully failing to meet those but also turns a laggard on too many green technology fronts. The first mass produced hybrid vehicle was developed in Japan and the first commercial electric sports car will roll onto the streets in California next year, while BMW brought out the first hybrid ten years after the Prius. In June The Economist ran a special on the future of energy, in which not a single, I repeat, not a single innovator in solar technology introduced is based in Europe. Frankly, except for wind power, the future is only limitedly happening here anymore.
United in diversity
But despite our politicians not keeping up with public demand for change the future still can be ours to shape, if we only recognize the challenges ahead not as an impossible quest but as what they are: the greatest opportunity for mankind in the twenty-first century. The Economist called the to be expected profits of the industry “a prize beyond the dreams of avarice;” as they detail,
the market for energy is huge. At present, the world’s population consumes about 15 terawatts of power. (A terawatt is 1,000 gigawatts, and a gigawatt is the capacity of the largest sort of coal-fired power station.) That translates into a business worth $6 trillion a year-about a tenth of the world’s economic output-according to John Doerr, a venture capitalist who is heavily involved in the industry. And by 2050, power consumption is likely to have risen to 30 terawatts.
The innovation lull of the past few decades also provides opportunities for technological leapfrogging. Indeed, it may be that the field of energy gives the not-quite-booms in biotechnology and nanotechnology the industrial applications they need to grow really big, and that the three aspiring booms will thus merge into one.”
This is how to sell alternative energies to our politicians, who desperately cling to particularisms, no longer appropriate domains of national interest, and delusive securities of the present supply system: not only as a geo-political and environmental imperative but also as the greatest possible boom after the industrial revolution. A development that can generate millions of new jobs and bestow upon the West’s sclerotic economies a new field to distinguish ourselves from our competitors. As much as those affected by their manufacturing jobs being outsourced may lament, it is a tragic reality that the synthetic seats of cars will always be assembled cheaper in low-cost countries, but not the lithium-ion battery to last for 100,000 miles of the Tesla Roadster. I know this may sound cruel but instead of deceiving ourselves and those affected by their jobs having gone overseas with empty promises we should better prepare them to compete in those high-tech, know-how-intensive areas we still have a lead in.
Admittedly, Europe faces some geographic disadvantages here. Neither do we feature the climatic conditions for a bountiful harvest of sugar cane nor for a glittering sea of solar collectors. And yet the great advantage in this race to catch up is that there is no such thing as a dominant technology, let alone a one and only true path to energy independence. Besides the fact that they’re still in the development stage, what makes alternative energies so attractive is the fact that their nature and function is primarily not defined by the suppliers but the consumers, that they conform with local conditions, and that, while revolutionary and cost-intensive leaps might be required in some fields, at the core consist of a diverse network of different technologies and a chain of baby steps on a long march, to which each and everyone of us can contribute his or her individual share.
Wind power is a praiseworthy exception. Germany is the world’s largest consumer of wind power and has set itself the ambitious goal to produce 6,650 MW from offshore wind parks in the North and the Baltic Sea by 2010. The intention of the former Swedish government – unfortunately, the current conservative government doesn’t share its predecessor’s revolutionary zest – to become the world’s first country completely independent from oil by 2020 has been even more aspiring. By itself an undertaking worth the globe’s attention and emulation, it is even more interesting to study the innovations Swedish society employs to get them there. As Sweden Today reported, they convert confiscated alcohol that has been smuggled into the country – an astonishing 55,000 liters of spirits, 294,000 liters of strong beer and 39,000 liters of wine – together with human and slaughterhouse waste into biogas their local train from LinkÃ¶ping to VÃ¤stervik runs on. In Rotterdam the world’s first ecologically friendly disco has opened that only uses the energy of the vibration produced by those dancing on the electromagnetic floor to operate – with no one grooving the lights go out and the music breaks off.
Now that’s the kind of spirit we need. Sure, we may require a transition period in which we have to draw on nuclear power and a gradual phase out for foreign fuels during the coming decades, but as ambitious as the former Swedish government’s plan may sound at first, it is achievable, desirable, and we all can not only contribute to it but earn ourselves a handsome profit with it, too. Each individual and each country of the European Union, as diverse as they are, can add to our common goal of becoming energy independent within twenty-two years. From geothermal power plants in Denmark, to biomass gasification in Austria, to the world’s first commercial tidal stream generator in Ireland, to wave farms dotting the Portuguese Atlantic coast, to Europe’s largest hydro power plant in Romania, all is at our disposal – it only needs to be recognized as the treasure it is and built upon. “United in diversity” and “locally conceived and implemented while centrally coordinated” shall become the European Union’s motto for the future as it has been so successfully for our past.
Europe’s future lies in the Mediterranean
Let there be no doubt, this diverse patchwork of various green technologies, if connected in a European grid, all trade barriers for inter-European energy export lowered and embellished on a grand scale with vigorous strategies of energy conservation and efficiency, can get us a longer way towards energy independence than one may think when first reading about a wave farm prototype. However, it won’t suffice to completely replace foreign fossil fuels. In order to achieve this ambitious goal we have to look beyond our shores to Northern Africa.
In 2003, the German Association of the Club of Rome and the Hamburg Climate Protection Foundation, later joined by the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the German Green Party, the German Physics Society, together with Jordan’s National Energy Research Center, launched the DESERTEC Development Group. Their goal is to convince the public, business, European decision makers and opinion leaders of the feasibility of large-scale wind and solar power generated in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. As their white paper, presented to the European Parliament in November 2007, expounds,
By far the largest, technically accessible source of energy on the planet is to be found in the deserts around the equatorial regions of the earth. The DESERTEC Concept is designed to bring deserts and existing technology into service to improve global security of energy, water and the climate. To this end we propose Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA) begin to cooperate in the production of electricity and desalinated water using concentrating solar thermal power and wind turbines in the MENA deserts. These technologies can meet the growing demands for power production and seawater desalination in the MENA region, and produce clean electrical power that can be transmitted via High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines with relatively little transmission loss to Europe (10-15%).”
From 2005 to 2007 the German AEROSPACE Center conducted a set of studies on the production of energy in MENA, the intercontinental transfer of solar energy, and solar powered sea water desalination, and came to the conclusion that the project is both feasible with existing technologies and economically sensible to chip in 25% of Europe’s energy demand with solar power from MENA countries.
Areas of the size indicated by the red squares would be sufficient for Solar Thermal Power Plants to generate as much electricity as is currently consumed by the World, by Europe (EU-25) and by Germany/MENA respectively. (Source: German AEROSPACE Center, 2005)
The proposed parabolic through collector fields are the same as the ones in use in California’s Kramer Junction for more than 25 years. Instead of photovoltaics DESERTEC draws on Concentrating Solar Thermal Power (CSP) plants with the significant advantage that they are able to supply power on demand for 24 hours a day without the need for pumped storage that would require a bigger network of power lines. The proposed HDVC transmission lines are more effective than hydrogen as an energy vector and could minimize the energy loss to 3% per 1,000 km, which would be compensated for by the double level of solar radiation in MENA countries in comparison to Southern Europe.
At present, the German government and the EU Commission are working on a HDVC power grid to connect the above mentioned wind farms in the North and Baltic Sea with the rest of Europe. If successfully implemented, the same technology could be used to connect North African solar power to Southern Europe and the rest of the continent. In sum, the technology to collect the energy levels needed, to transport it to customers from Madrid to Helsinki, and to cost us less than seven cents per kWh is available, all it requires is the political will and venture capital for our future, foreign fuel-free European energy network to look like this:
(Source: DESRTEC, 2005)
The European Dream
Now you may ask, what kind of inanity is that, you want to exchange unstable suppliers of oil like Iran with unstable suppliers of solar power like Algeria and sell it as energy independence? Indeed, that’s the plan. With one qualification to the DESERTEC concept, though, which I fear may not please His Royal Highness Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, one of the staunchest supporters of the project: due to political instability I would not include countries of the Middle East in the grid for the time being, thus limiting it to a cooperation between the EU-27, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
The fundamental difference between these countries and Russia, Iran or Yemen is that Europe can have a positive influence through integration on them, something we lack the resources, potency and political will to accomplish with partners outside the Maghreb and Turkey. If again biting off more than we could chew, we would have just replaced flawed gas dependency on Russia and insecure oil dependency on Saudi Arabia with uncertain solar dependency on the Middle East. As with our failed attempts to craft a constitution for Europe, the EU has got bogged down on too many fronts over the last years, from intervening in Chad, to a summit-mania with Latin American and ASEAN countries, to failed attempts to pacify the Caucasus. Instead of achieving very little everywhere, let’s do things in a big way in a limited, as yet unstable area where we truly can have an impact.
Whatever one may think the motives for French President Nikolas Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean were, this is the way to go. Europe’s future lies in the cooperation with our Mediterranean partners in the south. Many critics, who may have a point, have bashed Sarkozy’s vision as just French jingoism or neo-colonialist exploitation in disguise. DESETEC would counter these concerns by altering the bargaining position of the Maghreb countries. They would no longer find themselves as cheap commodity suppliers in a Wallerstein-like center-periphery relationship but would become equal partners in co-ownership of the process within the center. Europe’s future would depend as much on their cooperation and willingness for reform as they would depend on European investments and sensitivity towards their cultural particularities, thus putting both sides in a win-win position.
Both the failed Barcelona Process and its relaunch, the Union for the Mediterranean, have already prioritized alternative energy cooperation aside Euro-Mediterranean business initiatives, an expansion of land and maritime highways connecting the Maghreb countries, de-pollution of the Mediterranean, a strengthening of civil society, and enhanced cooperation in research, education, and cultural exchange. All these projects are equally important as well as a European commitment to allocate a significant amount of the energy generated by DESERTEC to seawater desalination, thus providing the desert countries of North Africa with what they need most. With an average annual GDP growth rate of 4.4% and average inflation having come down from 20% to around 5% the countries of the Maghreb are a bonanza for FDI and prosperous new markets to be panted for once the ballyhoo in Eastern Europe has ebbed down. Most importantly, such an enhanced cooperation that could ultimately result in a Euro-Mediterranean free trade area and a status a nothingness short of EU membership for the Maghreb countries would counter the single most contaminating ground for political and religious radicalism, unemployment and a youth with prospects, thus depriving al Qaeda et al of its most winning arguments of recruitment.
As outlined above, energy independence and a complete switch from fossil fuels to alternative energies is an economic, environmental, and geo-political imperative. Given the political will, most of this transformation can be achieved by European member countries alone as the ambitious goals of the German and Swedish government attest. But we should set ourselves higher, yet realistic goals. If augmented by an enhanced cooperation with the Maghreb countries, Europe would have the once-in-a-century opportunity to make what Jeremy Rifkin called “The European Dream” come true. A dream that champions communalism, sustainability, and human rights over property rights and radical individualism, a dream that crafts a common zone of peace and prosperity from Helsinki to Algiers, from Warsaw to Rabat, from Dublin to Tripolis, a dream that truly has the potential to become the beacon of Kantian peace and postmodern values of the twenty-first century as America was for freedom during a good part of the twentieth, a dream that could set the twenty-first century’s most shining example of Christianity and Islam co-existing peacefully aside each other and fighting religious radicalism through the powers of persuasion of our unique model of integration instead of the barrels of our guns, a dream that would provide both our citizens with a narrative to identify with and live for and our neighbors with an example to emulate, a dream about so much more than just energy independence.
Hannes Artens is the author of The Writing on the Wall, the first anti-Iran-war novel.