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BERLIN (Reuters) - Five companies from Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, France and Italy will join the Desertec solar power project that aims to supply 15 percent of Europe's power by 2050, chief executive Paul van Son said on Wednesday.
Founded by 12 mostly German companies last year, the 400 billion euro project will use mirrors to harness the sun's rays to produce steam and drive turbines for electricity generation in the Sahara region.
The new participants will be announced in March, van Son said, adding there was no shortage of companies interested in joining the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) which was created last year.
"The more the merrier," said van Son, 56, who before his appointment to lead DII in October had headed the European Federation of Energy Traders.
"We want to make it more of an international project," he said, addressing the concern that it has until now been mostly a German initiative with 10 German firms, but only one Spanish and one Algerian company on board.
"With the new partners we'll have a broader base. That's important for acceptance. It's important that we have companies involved from MENA countries (Middle East and North Africa)."
The 40-year plan to power Europe with Sahara sunlight has gained momentum, he said. The world's most ambitious solar power project would advance in stages with the first phases operational within a decade.
Fields of mirrors in the desert would gather solar rays to boil water, turning turbines to electrify a new carbon-free network linking Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Twelve member companies -- including Siemens, E.ON, RWE and Deutsche Bank -- back the initiative launched by Munich Re last July.
During the next three years Van Son said the focus will be to develop demonstration projects and to ensure renewable energy laws allowing imports of green energy are in place in various countries.
"We want to create some hard facts as quickly as possible and that's why we want to do a few demonstration projects as soon as we can," he said, adding Morocco appeared to be a leading candidate for initial projects.
Morocco has said it has identified sites to place the curved solar mirrors that are not deep in the Sahara but in populated areas just north of the desert to ensure a supply of water to clean mirrors and cool turbines.
Desertec's founders have said more energy falls on the world's deserts in six hours than the world consumes in a year.
"There's a vast amount of sunshine there," van Son said. "And there are vast amounts of space."
Van Son said Desertec has to ensure a legal framework is in place to guarantee price incentives for the power produced in the Sahara -- a scheme similar to the Renewable Energy Act (EEG) in Germany and other countries.
"The costs for electricity from the desert will be higher than the costs of producing electricity with fossil fuels or nuclear power," van Son said, noting higher prices for desert power need to be in place for 10 or 20 years.
He noted that even in Germany there is not yet any provision for imported green energy and that such a foundation was needed before capital investors would join in.
"The expectations are that we'll set up a relative good starting position within the next three years in Europe that will make it possible for investors to come in," van Son said, noting banks are interested.