On a map of the world showing so-called insolation, or the amount of “solar irradiance” hitting the surface per sq metre, there are three notable patches of dark red. One lies in western Australia; another in the southwest US; and the third stretches from Algeria across North Africa all the way to Saudi Arabia. It is these areas that have the greatest potential for solar energy.
These days, the swathe that covers the MENA region is of particular interest. It runs across countries that are fast-growing and in need of new sources of energy and exports. The available solar energy in these areas, which remains virtually untapped, is also close to Europe, a continent with huge demand for alternative energy and much less sunshine. Governments and industry are therefore beginning to wake up to the opportunities, and are pushing to turn the solar resources of the MENA deserts into real energy that can be transported regionally and northward.
The story being pitched is sensible, believable and compelling. The Sahara Desert gets about 3500 hours of sunshine a year, as much as the sunniest parts of the US. In theory, just 0.3% of North Africa’s desert area could supply the electricity needs of MENA and the EU combined. Add in the rest of the world’s deserts, and six hours of sun could power the globe for an entire year. To make the proposition even more appealing, the land in question is for the most part uninhabited, meaning fewer practical hurdles for governments; the clean energy could be created without disrupting lives or crowding out crops.
On the Horizon
There are broader reasons for a shift in mood. The EU has set ambitious goals to supply all its energy from renewable sources by 2050, and reducing its carbon emissions by at least 80% by that time. To help it achieve this, power links to the desert assets of North Africa are being considered from many angles. The Desertec Foundation, which is working to develop solar power in North Africa that can be transmitted to the EU grid, believes that 15% of Europe’s energy needs could be supplied by desert-based installations by 2050. Regional governments accept the need to cross the Mediterranean, and many are now writing up official policies to support international energy trading. Through its Renewable Energy Directive, the EU calls for 20% renewable energy within its borders by 2020 and permits member states to import energy from non-EU countries to meet their respective quotas.
Memories of Fukushima are also helping drive Europe towards a desert solution. After the nuclear accident occurred in Japan in March 2011, Germany resolved to phase out nuclear power altogether by 2022. This policy has made finding renewable energy sources a priority for the country, which gets 23% of its electricity from nuclear plants. As a result, Germany has been a leader in the promotion and development of desert-based solar installations in North Africa.
Shifts in cross-border energy flows provide another reason to build solar capacity in the MENA deserts. Just a few years ago, the region as a whole became a net importer of energy, according to the World Bank, going from net exports equal to 148% of energy use in 2010, to net imports equal to 87% of use. As a consequence, inflation, which has been a problem for years in a number of MENA countries, will now feed through more directly to the more vulnerable economies like Morocco, making energy security a priority. In light of such factors, support for regional cooperation in developing and exporting alternative energy has increased.
Across the deserts of MENA, plans for solar infrastructure are under way. Morocco, which is highly dependent on imported oil, has embarked on a $9bn plan to build five alternative energy power stations by 2020, totalling 2 GW of installed capacity. The country already has a 20-MW concentrating solar power plant at Aïn Beni Mathar. Work on the first phase of a 500-MW solar plant in the Ouarzazate region has recently finished, with the second phase to begin soon. Algeria, a member of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and also highly dependent on oil revenues, has said it will spend $60bn to develop alternative energy. Its goal is to have 650 MW of renewable power by 2015 and 22 GW by 2030 – 12 GW for domestic use and 10 GW for export. Tunisia plans to start building its massive 2-GW TuNur solar project in 2014, with the aim of generating electricity by 2016.
These projects will be brought together under a regional grid that will extend across North Africa, through to the Middle East and across the Mediterranean to reach Europe. The idea is to have an interconnected and unified power network that allows electricity to be transported wherever it is need, both within Europe and between Europe and MENA.
Some of these links already exist. There are currently connections between Morocco and Spain, Morocco and Algeria, Algeria and Tunisia, Tunisia and Libya, and Libya and Egypt. Many of these power connections have been around for years – Morocco and Spain, for example, linked up in 1997. Even now, all of North Africa is part of a grid that is connected to the EU.
Official efforts have put new weight behind realising the grid. The idea of the Mediterranean Electric Ring (MedRing), as it is known, has been on the EU agenda since 2001, but the concept has since been modified to include other and more advanced links, and has received fresh support from a number of companies and associations. MedGrid, a Paris-based consortium whose members include France’s Alstom and Germany’s Siemens, was founded in 2010 to promote the building of the MedRing. Shareholders in the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) have included European giants such as Deutsche Bank, Siemens and UniCredit, and its associate members include 3M, HSBC, IBM, Audi and BASF. In 2011, Dii signed an agreement with MedGrid to work toward making the desert solar vision a reality.
Like many grand projects, however, the MENA-EU alternative power grid is facing its share of challenges. Solar technology, though it has been around for years and is becoming ever more efficient, is still very expensive, costing about four times more per KWh than a conventional oil-gas, combined-cycle plant, according to the US Energy Information Administration. And despite tremendous improvements, solar panels still do not produce all that much power – photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into energy at efficiency rates of about 10-20% and generate electricity costing about $0.18-0.30 per KWh. The current technology has a theoretical maximum efficiency of 31%.
Indeed, the very nature of solar energy makes it problematic. Unlike a conventional power source, solar output cannot be adjusted on demand, so using it requires having oil or gas generators at the ready in case output should fall. Another long-standing issue is storage. Batteries custom-made for solar energy are still inefficient, expensive and usually toxic. Other solutions, such as hydro-storage in the desert, are clean but also expensive, hard to adjust and unworkable in the very environments where they are needed.
Grids & Lines
The biggest challenge of all is transmission. Though high-voltage technology for direct current is relatively straightforward and mature, the distances and depths involved are so great that most routes across the region are either too expensive or beyond the scope of current cable technology. One EU report suggests crossing at the Strait of Gibraltar, which would be shorter and reasonably shallow. But this would mean upgrading most of the power grids and links in North Africa – no small feat both technologically and politically. “Although there is good infrastructure for power generation in renewable energy, Morocco still needs to improve its transmission networks,” Slim Kchouk, chairman of Siemens Morocco, told OBG.
Other barriers could stand in the way. The countries in question are at varying degrees of development. Some markets are regulated, others less so. Their legal infrastructure is not harmonised, and their institutions function very differently. Political instability persists, and sabotage is not out of the question.
The hard truth about renewables is that they cannot entirely replace conventional energy sources unless societies adjust their consumption. This requires greater use of efficient lighting technologies, the construction of greener and “smarter” buildings, higher investment in efficient cooling systems, and IT regulations that require equipment with low power usage.
A Bright Future
While the development of solar faces many challenges, one fact remains: the sun is and will be for the foreseeable future the best source of safe and sustainable energy. Politics, corruption, technology, costs and perceptions may certainly slow the expansion of the solar power industry, and to be sure, not all of the vast fields of panels and mirrors planned and envisioned between now and 2020 will see the light. Nevertheless, progress will move forward and capacity rise, especially as fossil fuels begin to dwindle and as more of the world goes from poorer to richer. Demand for electricity will rise, the price of conventional fuels will increase, the cost of panels will continue to drop and, in the not-too-distant future, the whole question of whether solar is worth it will fade into the background. The arguments and doubts will appear less important once the numbers add up.