Perspectives: Building bridges—Towards a new science partnership between Europe and MENA

October 5th, 2011 | by MuslimScience
Perspectives: Building bridges—Towards a new science partnership between Europe and MENA
Public Policy
By: Frank Lehner

Published in Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy on 30 August 2011.

The idea of generating solar energy on a large scale in the sun-intensive countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to satisfy their own increasing energy demand and to export surplus energy to Europe as advocated in the DESERTEC concept1 has publicly received much attention in some countries, particularly in Germany, Morocco, Tunisia, and also substantial support from their governments. Besides the DESERTEC Foundation, an industrial consortium (Dii GmbH) was founded in 2009 which consists of major European and MENA companies to push this project further by working on legal, regulatory, technical, and economical frameworks to create viable market conditions for a large-scale roll-out. A systematic inter-connection around the Mediterranean basin and the deployment of 20 GW of renewable energy by 2020 is also at the core of the so-called Mediterranean Solar Plan,2 as part of a political roadmap based on a multi-governmental declaration by all 27 European Union Member States and 16 neighbouring states of the Union for the Mediterranean.
There are pressing challenges in MENA: The rapidly increasing energy (and water) demand in MENA will soon exceed the current supply capacities. It is expected that the electrical energy consumption in MENA will be more than triple by the year 2050 with respect to today.3 Water scarcity is already a serious problem in MENA, and population growth will further aggravate the situation. However, the potential of solar energy in MENA countries is immense with an annual average solar energy irradiance of 2400 kWh/m2. Every year up to 250 GWh of energy per square kilometre of desert could be harvested with solar power plants. This solar potential exceeds by far the potential of other renewable sources such as wind, biomass, hydro, or geothermal energy. Depending on the solar infrastructure, MENA would then be able to produce enough energy and co-generated water through seawater desalination for its own demands.
Moreover, excess energy might be exported to European markets to cover up to 15%-20% of European needs by 2050.
DESERTEC is based on a series of studies4 led by the German Aerospace Centre DLR and prepared for the German Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU). In the DLR studies, MED-CSP, TRANS-CSP, and AQUA-CSP, the generation potential of renewable energies, mainly of concentrating solar power (CSP), around the Mediterranean Sea, the dual application for seawater desalination, and the inter-connection of the electricity grids of Europe and MENA through HVDC lines which are much more capable of transferring large power over long distances were thoroughly studied. CSP is a mature technology with a promising cost reduction potential that can provide firm output through thermal storage. The global CSP installation presently amounts to about 1 GW, and many more projects in Europe, mainly in Spain, as well as in the USA, Asia, and in MENA, are in the pipeline. In fact, the first CSP in MENA, an integrated solar combined cycle plant in Kuraymat, Egypt, with a 20 MW solar field, has just recently taken up its operation. Studies5 estimate that in optimistic scenarios up to 100 GW of CSP could be globally installed by 2025 that will bring costs further down by 50% to become competitive with fossil fuels. Using the deserts as power house, greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale can be reduced while simultaneously sustainable growth in MENA is supported.
It is clear that with the pressing global challenges of growing population and declining resources, scientific and technological cooperation with developing and emerging countries becomes more and more important. Europe and MENA should both envisage a joint energy/science partnership that internationally coordinates research and technology agendas towards a future community of shared interests in energy, water, and climate protection. Scientific, technological, and educational cooperation between Europe and MENA needs to be significantly enhanced—on all levels and in all domains—to build up the capacities, communities, and collaborations that are required for a large-scale deployment of renewable energies in the desert. Especially in times of democratic change and modernization in the Arab world, it is more important than ever that Europe offers a long-term partnership to MENA for the sake of its own interest and neighborhood policy.
These were the main themes of the international symposium “Solar Energy for Science” ( that was recently held on 19/20 May at the German National Research Centre DESY. More than 250 representatives of 30 nations—among them 50 attendants from MENA countries—discussed first steps towards a joint European and MENA energy/science region. DESY, a worldwide renowned research center to investigate the structure and function of matter using large-scale research infrastructures such as particle accelerators, synchrotron radiation sources, and x-ray free-electron lasers acted as a neutral host to bring together various European and MENA stakeholders from science, civil society, industry, and politics.
For two days, the participants focused on the main objectives of the symposium: pointing out scientific connections and identifying cooperation potentials between Europe and MENA, discussing energy R&D roadmaps for both regions, identifying obstacles in energy policy and regulatory frameworks and initiating a coherent scientific and technological dialogue on a broad multidisciplinary basis in the fields of science, energy, and climate protection.
More than 50 speakers along with a very active audience discussed a wide spectrum of exciting and important aspects of a common energy/science area. Two Nobel laureates in physics, Walter Kohn and Carlo Rubbia, emphasized strongly the unique role of solar energy as a common basis for sustainable development in both regions. Heads of leading research institutes assessed the performances of existing CSP technologies and evaluated future R&D needs in their regions. Representatives from MENA, among them Jordan’s minister for energy Khaled Toukan and Egypt’s Academy for Scientific Research and Technology President Maged al Sherbiny, informed about the status quo of renewable energies, deployment plans, and R&D strategies in their countries. Most of the MENA countries, in fact, have ambitious national energy strategies for renewable energies. Egypt, for instance, is aiming for a 20% share of renewable energies by 2020.
There was a clear agreement at the conference that a partnership between Europe and the MENA region is only possible at eye level. Such a gigantic energy project has to be developed in close cooperation with MENA and cannot be imposed from outside. Europe has to offer support and assistance through bilateral agreements and regional programs that recognize the socio-economic and socio-political implications and dimensions in MENA, such that the region is able to benefit on a maximum level from this solar project. However, this also requires considerable efforts and commitments from the MENA states. In particular, a big leap forward in developing science and technology in MENA has to be seriously taken by Governments as highly qualified people, and a modern education and research system in MENA are needed to overcome future challenges. Current spending on R&D in MENA is meager and relative to the GDP typically one order of magnitude below global average. Apart from a significant lack of funding, more efforts have to be made towards coherent research strategies, programs, and priorities which all need regional coordination within MENA.
Speakers at the conference pointed out the scientific value and socio-economic impact of centers of excellence and of large-scale research facilities as important cornerstones in modern knowledge-based societies to offer excellent research conditions for both basic and applied science and to promote innovation. Europe could offer more support and integration programs for MENA scientists for access and for collaboration at European research infrastructures. However, participating alone is not sufficient to create a critical mass of research skills in the region and to produce the necessary knowledge. Instead, local research capacities and infrastructures must be built up from the ground in MENA. In that context, Sir Chris Llewellyn-Smith, the President of the SESAME Council, highlighted the synchrotron radiation source SESAME (Ref. 6) as a center of excellence project that will be commissioned in 2015 in Jordan. The research center SESAME is a multilateral cooperation project in the Middle East under United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization patronage and will significantly strengthen natural sciences and life sciences in the MENA region. Based on decades of successful experience in Europe and around the world, such research infrastructures are vital as they educate young researchers, counteract brain drain, and supply valuable cooperation links to international scientific communities.
Finally, the symposium participants agreed on a series of follow-up activities after the conference. A second symposium to deepen the European-MENA scientific dialogue is envisaged in the second half of 2012. With an intensive education, research, and technology cooperation between Europe and MENA, the common goal is to build bridges into the future—towards more stability, growth, and sustainability.


  1. DESERTEC Foundation: Clean power from the deserts. The DESERTEC concept for energy, water and climate security, White Book, 4th ed. (Verlag, Bonn, Germany, 2009).
  2. See for information on the Union for the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean Solar Plan.
  3. F. Trieb and H. Müller-Steinhagen, Sustainability Sci. 2, 205 (2007).
  4. German Aerospace Center DLR (2005): MED-CSP. Concentrating solar power for the Mediterranean region. Study prepared for the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), Stuttgart.; German Aerospace Center DLR (2006): TRANS-CSP. Trans-Mediterranean Interconnection for concentrating solar power. Study prepared for the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), Stuttgart.; German Aerospace Center DLR (2007): AQUA-CSP. Concentrating solar power for seawater desalination. Study prepared for the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), Stuttgart.
  5. A. T. Kearney, Solar Thermal Electricity 2025 – Clean electricity on demand: attractive STE stabilize energy production, ESTELA, June 2010.
  6. See for SESAME.



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