Hydrogen from the desert

When the German companies exited the Desertec Industrial Initiative in 2014, many had considered the project a failure. But the network has developed further – and will now also be visible again in Europe, as Dii Desert Energy. Is now when energy will come out of the desert?

In 2009, the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) started, with a lot of media hype. Especially German corporations wanted to build solar power plants in the southern Mediterranean countries. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) was the technology of choice at the time. It was cheaper than photovoltaics and could, with thermal energy storage, produce electricity continuously. The power plants were to supply electricity not only to the region, but also for export to Europe.

But it went more haltingly than some had hoped. Most of the German companies, among them Deutsche Bank, MunichRE, Eon, Bosch and Siemens, left Desertec in 2014 – still during the construction phase of the solar plant Noor in Morocco. Innogy remained as the last German company, until its acquisition by Eon and incorporation into Dii.

Since then, hardly anything has been heard in Germany of Desertec. Many got the impression that the idea had been abandoned. But in fact, activities have since shifted increasingly to the Arabian Peninsula and the new office in Dubai – even if the official headquarters of today’s Dii Desertec Energy GmbH is still in Munich. Also there meet the core members of the initiative for a conference year after year. Dii founder and president Paul Van Son as well as Cornelius Matthes, CEO of the organization since January 2021, courted the idea of desert energy with the oil states of the Persian Gulf.

Today, Dii Desert Energy is a political and economic network that stretches over several continents in which many major companies from the energy and hydrogen industries are engaged. For a long time, the shareholding partners were exclusively the Saudi Arabian state-backed energy corporation ACWA Power and the Chinese utility State Grid. To the “Lead Partners,” the gold sponsors so to speak, today belong four holdings, of which two are from Saudi Arabia, one from Morocco and one from the Netherlands. The extended circle consists of a good 50 “Associate Partners.” Among them are research institute Fraunhofer ISE, PV manufacturer Suntech, Shell and the Norwegian H2 company Nel. Also Thyssenkrupp, as a market leader for electrolysis plants, had been one of these partners since 2017 – and became a shareholding partner at the beginning of 2022. That made the German press, after a long time, pay attention again.

Jorgo Chatzimarkakis of Hydrogen Europe called years ago for hydrogen pipelines that would transport fuel gas from Africa to Central Europe and stated, “We (Germany) will be an importing country of renewable energies, but an exporting country of electrolyzers.” On the other hand, Carsten Körnig, managing director of BSW Solar (German solar association) said that to import renewable energies in large quantities would not be possible, because other European countries would also stake demand for it. Because of this, according to Körnig, more emphasis should be placed on domestic green electricity generation. (S. Geitmann)

The desert power grid has also changed technologically. Instead of plans for power lines, Dii Desert Energy presented at the beginning of 2020 the “MENA Hydrogen Alliance.” It’s for ammonia and methanol in addition to green hydrogen. Van Son, however, stressed that electricity generation is still a substantial part of the Desertec vision today – also and especially for local needs. Depending on the distribution of peaks in the load profile, he also sees a niche for solar thermal power plants in some regions.

The portents for energy coming out of the desert are better today than they were during the first attempt. The pressure for climate protection has grown strongly. Governments and businesses around the world have already included in their climate plans megatonnes of green hydrogen as replacement for oil and gas. And concrete projects are also popping up ever faster on the map. The best known of these is probably the futuristic conceptualized city Neom, which is to appear in the Northwest of Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea. Wind and solar power plants with a capacity of over four gigawatts are to supply not only the city. Also, around 650 tonnes of hydrogen daily is to be generated in Neom, mainly for further processing to green ammonia.

As to the participating businesses and persons, the same names can always be encountered. The electrolyzers are to come from Thyssenkrupp. Managing director of the project partnership is Peter Terium, formerly with Innogy and RWE. Project partnership Neom, the energy corporation ACWA Power and the technical gas producer Air Products announced in July 2020 that they would together invest 5 billion USD in the project. Construction has now begun – operations are to start mid-decade.

To learn a little more about the current status of this project, H2-international interviewed Cornelius Matthes, the CEO of Dii Desert Energy.

H2-international: Mr. Matthes, you say in lectures and publications that companies involved in Desertec will within this decade be able to supply the quantities of hydrogen that Europe requires. It sounds sincere. What is the basis for your confidence?

Matthes: We know the announcements and plans of our partners. These include projects such as Neom Green Hydrogen, which alone is to produce 650 tonnes of hydrogen daily, but also other projects from ACWA Power, Masdar, DEME, Linde or EDF. These are large companies whose track records show that they can handle such projects. If we include projects that are already between the stages of announcement and implementation planning, that comes to more than the 10 million tonnes per year that Europe wants to import by 2030. With the introduction of the Hydrogen Accelerator, as part of the REPowerEU plan, the production and import targets for Europe have been approximately quadrupled. That means, from the 2×40-GW initiative that we, together with our partner Hydrogen Europe, presented to Frans Timmermans in April 2020, is now a 2×160-GW initiative. So by the end of the decade, the MENA region will be able to supply the hydrogen that Europe needs.

Production capacity is one thing. But for green hydrogen to become an alternative to fossil hydrogen or other energy sources, it must also be affordable.

2 thoughts on “Hydrogen from the desert”

  1. I am afraid, that the companies mentioned above,
    will NOT be able to fulfill their promises,
    given in their statements here.
    The proof:
    They all had their chances from the 1970s,
    as all was known at that time already.
    Even their second chance, around the year 2000,
    when there was another hydrogen hype.
    they have missed, to get something work-able done.
    Working on a business model, which solely depends on governmental,
    which means on taxpayer`s payments, will never be successfully on the long run.
    Does anybody of you esteemed readers know one example of a Hydrogen project,
    which was funded within the last 30 years and which went viral by now?
    Give us just one example, please.


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