Cornelius Matthes: energy transition in the desert

Cornelius Matthes, CEO der Dii Desert Energy
Cornelius Matthes is CEO of Dii Desert Energy, which aims to finally turn the old dream of energy from the desert into reality.

Cornelius Matthes lives in Dubai. In other words, the city that, over the past twenty years, has become a symbol of wealth, abundance, and petroleum-based waste like no other, without relying permanently on the finite black gold. As CEO of Dii Desert Energy, the 46-year-old is working to kick-start the energy revolution not only in the United Arab Emirates but also in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Yet the Dii is an old acquaintance: It has been trying to push the Desertec initiative since 2009. The goal was, and still is, to produce enough renewable energy in North Africa and the Middle East so that it can also be exported to Europe. The project was declared dead in the media in 2014 when several investors pulled out. The problem at the time: The European electricity market was saturated, and electricity exports were flowing in the opposite direction via the existing transmission lines instead of from Morocco to Spain. But after more than ten years in the region, he says, they learned a lot about the countries and local energy economies. “After all, Desertec never had a mandate to build or operate projects; Dii was supposed to pave the way for the energy transition,” Matthes recounts.

The EU’s Green Deal is also providing new impetus for the region, says Matthes: “The initiative is being very well perceived here.” Morocco has come a long way with a 42 percent share of renewables in its electricity mix, and Jordan was also quick to embrace solar and wind,” Matthes explains. In the meantime, however, there is also a second generation, such as Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, which are investing heavily in the green transformation.

Green hydrogen livens the imagination

In addition to the classic renewables of solar and wind energy, however, there is an even more important new energy source, he says. “With green hydrogen, a game-changer is now in play,” Matthes says. Now, it is no longer just about electricity from the MENA region, but a green energy carrier could be delivered to Europe that can be stored seasonally. A direct comparison to the transmission capacities of submarine cables, which are currently at two to three gigawatts, shows the potential of hydrogen, Matthes explains: “Large pipelines have a transmission capacity for an energy equivalent of 70 gigawatts.” Thus, the old Desertec project is turning into the idea of Desertec 3.0, with First Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans as a prominent hydrogen ally from Brussels at his side, Matthes reveals.

Before Dii, Matthes worked for Deutsche Bank, among others, for many years. “But even then, I had a reputation as a green investment guy,” says Matthes. However, the Munich native also has a family background. Matthes’ father was vice president at the Bavarian State Office for the Environment, and his brother worked in the wind sector at Siemens for a long time, but now his focus is also on green hydrogen production.

Matthes developed his fascination for the MENA region on a trip with a student friend: In an old VW Passat, they drove from Passau to Morocco to climb the Jbel Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, which is a good 4,100 meters high. This fascination has remained to this day. David Renke

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