A new study helps explain why: The mega project could help spawn 240,000 new green jobs in Germany and deliver up to $2 trillion in profits to companies by 2050, according to the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.
Desertec was launched in 2007 by the German association of the Club of Rome. Its architects seek to spread a supergrid of concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP) across a 6,500 square-mile stretch of North African desert to eventually power most of Europe.
According to the Wuppertal report, exporting the CSP technologies to Africa and other desert solar hotspots would help German manufacturers build on their already strong solar market share.
CSP "offers great opportunities for German plant builders," the authors wrote. They reveal the nation's likely winners:
Schott Solar, MAN Ferrostaal Group (NRW) and their business segment "Solar Energy", Flagsol (NRW), Solar Power Group, Solar Millenium and Fichtner Solar who are all involved in CSP.
Schott Solar (receiver) and Flagsol (mirrors) are world market leaders. E.ON, RWE and EnBW are increasingly interested in using the technology and leading insurance companies like the "Münchner Rück" are considering including CSP as a new business segment.
The findings support the much-publicized decision last month by a group of leading German firms to begin raising a considerable sum of $555 billion for Desertec. Those companies, which include insurance giant Munich Re, German engineering leader Siemens and Deutsche Bank, will meet for the first time on July 13.
Critics have slammed the consortium's efforts. They argue that Desertec would impinge on the development of Germany's exploding domestic rooftop solar industry, taking funds from national subsidies and killing local jobs.
But the Wuppertal study, which was commissioned by Greenpeace and the Club of Rome, lays out the counter case — that Desertec, too, makes economic sense for the nation's blooming clean energy economy.
In fact, CSP power plants could become the "third German 'export hit' in the field of eco-energy," behind wind and solar photovoltaic power, said Andree Böhling, an energy expert at Greenpeace Germany.
Already, Germany's renewable energy industry employs 214,000 people.
Max Schön, President of the Club of Rome, said that if Germany chooses to unleash its CSP market potential, that number could swell to 1 million. Which means clean energy could provide as many jobs as the nation's automotive industry in less than a generation. (The car sector currently employs three-quarters of a million people and is Germany's top industry.)
Worldwide, a massive shift to CSP solar in Africa and other desert regions could create a total of 580,000 new jobs by mid-century given the "right political framework," the Wuppertal report found.
Those numbers are probably on the conservative side. In May, Greenpeace released a report concluding that if a giant leap in CSP capacity occurs — reaching 25 percent of global electricity needs by 2050 — the sector would employ 2 million people around the globe.
Energy-wise, CSP potential is inarguably off the charts.
The technology works through vast solar mirrors that concentrate the sun's rays to drive steam turbines. If the world were to install CSP solar collectors on just three-thousandths of the Earth's deserts today (about 35,000 square miles), they could power the entire planet.
More practically, the German Aerospace Center has shown that CSP plants in the Sahara could generate more than 50 percent of the electricity needs of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa in just 40 years.
Desertec has crunched the numbers on jobs: Just one 250 MW parabolic trough power plant requires 1,000 workers and engineers for a period of two to three years.
Of course, turning North Africa into a solar (and green employment) hub is hardly a one-nation job or responsibility. On top of the actual solar plants, the project requires quick establishment of expensive low-loss, long-distance high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines to export the power across the Mediterranean and into Europe.
The technology is ready to go. But deploying it would require cooperation, financing and favorable new laws and regulations from Germany and all the relevant EU nations and host African countries. No easy task, though the Desertec team remains optimistic: