In August 2022, TuNur, A UK based developer of solar energy infrastructure announced its plans to invest $1.5 billion in building an “export oriented” solar power plant in Tunisia with a capacity of 500 megawatts. But is ‘solar panelling the Sahara’ the way to go, and where will the funding come from?
According to Forbes Magazine, the Sahara desert is so exposed to the sun’s rays, that it would only take 335 square kilometres of solar panels in the Sahara to power the entire world (this excludes potential difficulties in storing and exporting the energy). Here lies the problem. Although large scale solar farms can provide vast amounts of energy and the hypothetical solar ‘super farm’ would only cover 1.2% of the land surface area of the Sahara, battery technology has always been a ‘bottleneck’ in the development of solar mega projects.
Due to solar power production only occurring during daylight hours and peak electricity consumption only happening after dark, it is also necessary to invest in expensive storage technology, storing energy in the day for use at night. Additionally, a vast amount of water would be needed in order to cool the solar panels, something which is not taken for granted in the desert! Although HVDC (High-Voltage, Direct-Current) connections make this possible and ensure a lower rate of energy is lost during transfer, it appears that this hypothetically world changing project is still confined to science fiction. However, this has not stopped various initiatives from attempting to turn the barren landscape of the Sahara into a spring for renewable energy.
TuNur is the latest development in a region which seems poised to assist European nations in meeting ‘Net Zero’ and therefore avoiding the woes of the energy crisis engulfing the world. In a region more synonymous with oil and gas (Algeria is the third largest exporter of oil and natural gas in the world), countries across North Africa are attempting to prove that they can translate their resource endowments into sustainable economic growth and solidify their standing as energy exporters, as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.
In many Maghrebi nations, natural resources have historically been the cornerstone of the export economy. As serious questions arise in countries dependent on oil revenues and Western governments appear to be accelerating the clean energy transition, governments in OPEC states have taken various approaches to hastily diversify economically. The most notable example of this are the mega-projects sponsored by Arabian Gulf States, like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s proposed 100 mile long linear city. While unprecedented mega-projects have the added bonus of attracting public attention and therefore investment, the Maghreb approach to solving this issue has been punctuated instead by consistent policymaking with an absence of flamboyance. Countries across North Africa have proven that directing existing expertise from the fossil fuel sector towards diversifying the economy and renewable energy achieves results.
In Tunisia, the ‘plan solaire tunisien’ or Tunisia solar plan adopted in 2009 aimed to reach 4.7 gigawatts (GW) of electricity produced through sustainable methods by 2030. The estimated total investment required in order to implement the plan is $2.5 billion, with 40% of the proposed budget going towards export infrastructure. However doubt has been cast over the project as only 3% of Tunisia’s electricity needs are produced by renewable energy with the rest sustained by the country’s modest oil and gas industry. The Elmed project, completed in 2019 established a connection between Tunisia and Italy with a cable running under the Mediterranean Sea. This direct connection sought to revolutionise sustainable energy exports from Africa, harnessing the true solar power capabilities of the Saharan nations and exporting it to European markets.
Further plans have connected Morocco to Spain under the Straits of Gibraltar and now the most ambitious yet, TuNur, aims to build a direct connection between Morocco and the United Kingdom. Spearheaded by former Tesco chief Dave Lewis, the project will cost £16 billion and span 3,800 kilometres.
Egypt’s plan to keep the lights on, in a region historically dependent on oil, is to set itself the goal of providing 42% of it’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2035. This is a challenge as currently the largest Arab country with 102 million people derives only 9% of its electricity from renewables. According to green economy researcher Mohamed Abdel Raouf, switching entirely to photovoltaic solar energy would need to be balanced by the high energy consumption during the summer months to cool the Egyptian capital, Cairo. The megalopolis houses around a fifth of Egypt’s population, and is dependent on small air conditioners meaning that the price for each Cairo household to fund the switch to renewables would hover around 60,000 Egyptian pounds (3,350 euros). This would require large scale state funding to incentivise the switch. “Why would we invest in an environmentally friendly technology that is expensive?”, he questions.
Priorities will be put to the test as African leaders tackle the issue of powering the world’s fastest growing megacities at COP 27. With a government faced with a lack of foreign currency and rising inflation, investors eyes will be glued to high-profile meetings, as Egypt tries to sell its growing renewables industry to the rest of the world.
Egypt is on the way to becoming a global powerhouse in the green energy value chain and will be ready to show the world that at COP27,” Forrest said. The country has “excellent wind and solar resources”, which will be able to produce “large scale green electricity, green hydrogen and green ammonia.Andrew Forrest, CEO, Fortescue Future Industries
This cost-benefit analysis is most strikingly seen in in the Maghrebi nations like Algeria and Libya where oil is plentiful. Despite Algeria enjoying more than 3,600 hours of sunshine annually, renewable energy only provides 1.8% of energy. Furthermore, the Noor Ouarzazate power plant in Southern Morocco, one of the largest solar plants in the world is being run at a loss. This raises the question of the future of solar energy in the Maghreb, if the domestic market and governments are hesitant to embrace the switch, whilst still envisioning mega-projects for the export of solar energy to Europe. This highlights an intrinsic problem in North African renewable energy. Often the investment and infrastructure are yet to follow in ambitious projects. In 2019, Spain asked the European Commission “to tackle carbon leakage from Morocco” as coal power plants in Morocco undercut Spanish providers by exporting their cheap energy under the Straits of Gibraltar without the effects of the EU’s Emissions Trading System. This makes plain how energy is not free from entanglement in national politics.
During the height of the covid 19 pandemic, the construction of new sites reduced to a trickle. The future of solar energy in the region is at a crossroads. In 2019, 1.4 GW of solar generation capacity were added across North Africa. In 2020, this number dropped to just 36 MW. In the same year, African energy company John Hamilton reported 3.1 GW of gas generation capacity. This has raised concerns about the political impetus to switch local grids to renewable energy, when oil and gas are plentiful in the region, yet more expensive due to the many factors including the war in Ukraine.
In European nations, the race towards ‘Net Zero’ is also driven by these geopolitical pressures and desire for strategic autonomy, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Despite sharing an interconnection with their neighbours on the other side of the Mediterranean, the states of the Maghreb are certainly not as wealthy. Although far from Ukraine, North African nations are extraordinarily impacted by the economic fallout of the conflict, with hikes in the price of grain leaving Egypt and Tunisia struggling to pay for imports. Ideally increased investment in solar power would help local energy grids transition away from fossil fuels, local governments are strapped for cash and have ‘bigger fish to fry’, just as European investment schemes prioritise North Africa’s role in enabling the European energy transition instead of developing their own infrastructure.
Amine Bennis of the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that as well as helping Europe meet its carbon emissions goals, Europe can strengthen economic interconnectivity between both sides of the Mediterranean, securing the EU’s ‘Southern back yard’ as the region sees consistent growth in investment from China. The argument for “green-deal diplomacy” may be one of the main forces behind the €79.46 billion investment in North Africa for the 2021-2027 period, of which 30% is for supporting climate objectives. Playing a major role in Europe’s Green New Deal, the budget, announced in 2021, may dictate the future of energy transfer, as well as economic exchange between both sides of the Mediterranean.
The environmental ambition of the Green Deal will not be achieved by Europe acting alone. The drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss are global and are not limited by national borders. The EU can use its influence, expertise and financial resources to mobilise its neighbours and partners to join it on a sustainable path.European Union parliamentary statement on the Green New Deal
While it is unlikely that the EU’s reliance on Algerian natural gas supplied by the trans-Mediterranean pipeline will dwindle overnight, the plan incorporates world leading private sector firms such as EDF to make the Saharan solar farms a reality. Europe has also alluded to using existing pipelines to transport “green hydrogen” across continents, instead of letting them run dry.
Despite this there remains the idea that countries like Morocco and Tunisia should ‘think small’ and promote community-level development, something overlooked by plans for mega-projects. As part of the ‘Green New Deal’ programme, all new buildings in Europe will be required to have solar panels on the roof. The idea that something similar would benefit countries like Morocco and Tunisia is predicated on the path taken by nations like France and Germany to becoming leaders in the transition away from fossil fuels in Europe and globally. A small scale approach would do more to better the lives of locals, fuelling regional environment and slicing the price of electricity bills for rural communities, which continue to rise with the price of oil and gas and national deficits.
Morocco in particular is positioning itself as an ‘energy hub’ to transport energy under the Mediterranean Sea’s narrowest point, the Straits of Gibraltar. The Noor Ouerzazate Solar Plant, commissioned in 2016, is the largest concentrated solar plant in the world and reportedly offsets 240,000t of CO₂ per year. It forms the backbone of the Moroccan Solar Energy Programme and despite providing over 500 Megawatts of electricity, the plant consumes a vast amount of water in cooling the solar panels, prompting environmental concerns in the middle of the Tafilalt, Morocco’s largest arid region which has endured systemic water shortages. Although connected to the regional grid, there still remain concerns about which parts of local society will benefit in a rapidly industrialising nation and whether the rural and pastoral communities living closest to Noor will continue to be left behind.
The days of Ra, the god of the sun reigning supreme over the banks of the Nile river are long gone. Two millennia later, it seems only just that Egyptians should turn to the sun to offer a solution to the country’s most pressing problem: the energy crisis. Fuelled by record breaking summer temperatures and historical water shortages in a nation so dependent on the Nile (95% of the nation’s population lives within five miles of the river) and furthered by fears over the effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egypt appears to be at the forefront of both the climate crisis and its political ramifications. In the reaches of the Western Desert, Egypt seeks an alternative solution to its woes. In the sprawling sea of rock and sand the size of France, lies the Benban solar park. A similar initiative to Morocco’s Noor Ouerzazate, Egypt’s take on the solar mega-project is even bigger, with a 37 kilometre plot set to provide enough electricity for over a million homes, with total output estimated at 1.6 GW.
In the nation of Red Sea seaside resorts like Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, renewables are within reach, with the Benban solar park paving the way forward. This will be a topic of discussion at COP27, taking place in Sharm El Sheikh in November 2022, with Benban and Egypt’s growing ‘green hydrogen’ production taking the spotlight.
COP27 is definitely an influencing factor. It offers a chance for Egypt to establish itself as a leader in this space – but also in providing a window for African voices. This is an Africa COP, it’s not just Egypt.British International Investment (BII) coverage director in Cairo, Sherine Shohdy
The similarly sunny outlook by the International Finance Corporation investigates the jobs that the Benban plant and others will provide to Egypt’s growing and increasingly well-educated economy. The tens of thousands of jobs created by Benban and similar plants under the Egyptian scheme is cited by the IFC as being “vital for Southern Egypt”.
“In addition to jump-starting economic growth, the Benban project will help Egypt curb its carbon footprint. The entire complex is expected to avoid 2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, the equivalent of taking about 400,000 cars off the road.”Andrew Raven, IFC Communications
Egypt’s attempts to jump-start its economy as a solar power have brought in large amounts of foreign investment, with a large portion of the Benban park funded by the World Bank. According to Paddy Padmanathan of ACWA power, a Saudi renewable energy firm, many states in the Arab world have seen an “acceleration in tenders during covid-19” in solar and renewable energy as many, like Egypt, intend to secure future energy resources.
The tens of thousands of jobs created by Benban and similar plants under the Egyptian scheme is cited by the IFC as being “vital for Southern Egypt” with one engineer, Mohamed Emara, describing how the plant has bettered local communities.
Many of the people on this site never had steady employment before they joined. They were day labourers. But now, they are being trained and learning skills that will help them find work on other projects.Mohamed Emara
Despite the encouraging signs from investors like the world bank and Western governments, regional turmoil may scare investors away. This puts the countries of the Maghreb in a difficult position, as a lack of investment in renewable energy and dependence on fossil fuels is negatively affecting populations as the prices of those fuels rise, which in turn means that nations are incapable of paying for expensive imports, saddling them with more debt and potentially causing instability. This forms a cyclical process as global shortages of essential products show no sign in abating, just as the expectation still remains in nations across North Africa that governments will continue to subsidise essential goods. With a debt to GDP ratio of 94%, Egypt is now talking to the IMF, attempting to secure a deal. Similar states in the region look like they are soon to follow, emphasising the need for further international cooperation on sustainable energy.