European Imperialism…Again?

A few weeks ago, The New York Times reported about a plant to harvest electricity through a solar thermal application in the African desert and then transmit it back to Europe for use. Upon initial consideration, this sounds like a really great idea: Africa is blessed with heat and lots of sun (the two resources needed for a successful solar thermal project), and Europe needs lots of electricity. Since the technology to do this scheme is there, why not use it?

Plus, there are many technical reasons to go forward with this plan:

  • It is estimated that 15% of the EU’s electricity demands could be satisfied by such a project.
  • DESERTEC (a foundation with the mandate to provide Europe with electricity through solar thermal applications in deserts) has announced a preliminary financing plan for their solar thermal project.
  • Green, renewable technologies are the latest hype right now.
  • Solar thermal, in the right application, is arguably an economically viable electricity generation alternative.

There is a lot going for this project. But there is also a lot going against it, particularly on the social side. The sentiment of European Imperialism is still in Africa. And coming in and exploiting yet another resource is not going to go over well. Look at how Shell has been treated in Nigeria over the past couple of weeks. They have been forced to shut-in oil production (i.e. stop producing wells) because of massive destruction of their facilities there. Additionally, and more importantly, is exploiting a resource from a historically poor continent for use in a historically wealthy continent something that a socially responsible company does?

But socially it’s not all bad. This project could have a lot of positive effects on an economy. The typical increase in jobs that comes with any new development would be excellent for the economy as well as quality of life of the citizens. Furthermore, this kind of solar thermal allocation would require skilled labor, which requires additional education of citizens, another great benefit to any country.

It’s is a great concept from a technical perspective, and if the cards are played right, it could be a great development from the social side too. The question is, how are the cards going to be played?