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Construction of world's biggest solar project starts in 2012

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Desertec aims to provide 15 percent of Europe's electricity by 2050. It will begin with a plant in the Moroccan desert that will be nearly half the capacity of a nuclear station.

The Desertec Industrial Initiative plans to break ground in 2012 on a giant solar plant in the Moroccan desert, the first of many renewable energy power stations that would together supply 15 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050.

In a short statement on its website, the German-led consortium said it will start building its first power plant next year, a 500-megawatt (MW) facility in Morocco that could cost €2 billion ($2.74 billion). That's roughly half the size of a typical nuclear power station.

“The first phase of the 12-square-kilometre Moroccan complex will be a 150 MW facility costing up to €600 million ($824 million) that will take two to four years to build,” Desertec said.

Desertec did not provide any other details. The plant is expected to be a solar thermal station that would use mirrors to heat up a fluid, create steam and drive a turbine.

Although several energy companies are backing off solar thermal in favor of photovoltaic electricity now that the price of photovoltaics is declining, Desertec remains one of solar thermal’s biggest champions. Photovoltaics generate electricity directly by using solar cells embedded in solar panels.

Desertec recently questioned whether Greece’s 10-GW photovoltaic Project Helios could effectively provide electricity to Europe. The leaders of European Union countries including Germany and France are counting on Helios to generate $21.2 billion that Greece would use to help reduce its enorumous debt.

Desertec will also use wind stations as part of the ambitious project that it announced in the summer of 2009 and which could cost $400 billion to build a series of renewable energy plants in N. Africa, the Middle East and in Europe. It would transmit N. African electricity via Mediterranean subsea cable.

Until now, the consortium had not yet determined where it would locate any of its power stations. The consortium’s 12 founders include 9 companies from Germany:  Deutsche Bank, Munich Re, HSH Nordbank, Siemens, Solar Millennium, Schott Solar, utilities E.ON and RWE and construction firm M+W Zander. Rounding out the founders list are Swiss engineering conglomerate ABB, Spanish energy company Abengoa, Algerian food products company Cevital.

Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) is part of the Desertec Foundation, which aims to reduce CO2 emissions by generating clean power in deserts around the world. Dii focuses on Europe, N. Africa and the Middle East.

Image: LucaG/Wikimedia

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure