updated 7/13/2009 4:22:05 PM ET 2009-07-13T20:22:05

A consortium of 12 European businesses outlined an ambitious plan Monday to build a massive solar power facility in North Africa that they said could satisfy 15 percent of Europe's energy needs by 2050.

The so-called Desertec project involves, among others, German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG, power companies RWE AG and E.ON AG, reinsurer Munich Re AG, Deutsche Bank AG, and Swiss-based electrical engineering firm ABB.

A memorandum of understanding signed Monday in Munich described Desertec as "a scientifically substantiated and economically feasible way of achieving" the stated energy production goal.

The project would be based largely on solar thermal power plants, which use mirrors to focus the suns' energy to heat a special oil, create steam and power generators. Such plants are already running in the U.S., Spain and elsewhere.

Power would be transmitted to Europe across a new 1,800-mile network.

A statement from the companies said that they have begun discussions about hosting and supporting the project with European and African governments, without naming any specifically.

The German Aerospace Center estimated in a study that the new electricity transport network alone could cost $63 billion, and that the entire project could approach $600 billion.

Some critics have questioned the projects' geopolitical feasibility.

Friedbert Pflueger, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, told Der Spiegel magazine's Web site that he wondered whether European officials outside Germany would support the project.

"The question now, above all, is the politics — particularly the EU Commission," Pflueger was quoted as saying.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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