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Africa-Europe concentrating solar power link: a solar land grab?

13 Jun 2018 Dave Elliott

The “desert solar” idea has been around for some time, and several large concentrated solar power (CSP) projects are now running in North Africa. Morocco, for example, is building a series of CSP arrays covering about 1.4 million square metres, with Noor 1 already generating power from its 160 MW of capacity and expansion to 580 MW under way. One early vision was for some of the power from projects like this to be exported to Europe via undersea marine cables. Nothing has come of that so far (all the energy produced from the existing projects is used locally), but it has recently been revived by London-based TuNur Ltd. This company has filed a request to the Tunisian Ministry of Energy, Mines & Renewable Energy for the authorisation of a 4.5 GW CSP parabolic mirror focused solar project in the Sahara desert in southwest Tunisia. If fully realised, the development would cover 25,000 hectares. Phase 1 of the plant would cost $85m, and the power cost would, it was claimed, be $101/MWh. It’s a bold plan – especially the export idea.

TuNur said “the site in the Sahara receives twice as much solar energy compared to sites in central Europe, thus, for the same investment, we can produce twice as much electricity”. Power would be exported to the EU via three High Voltage Direct Current undersea cables. The first one planned would be 500 km to Malta, at a cost of $1.6bn, and with a capacity of 250–500 MW. Malta has an existing 100-mile link to Sicily, so the power could then go north through Italy. The second link, with 2 GW capacity, may go direct to Italy (near Rome) and the third, at almost 2 GW, to France (landed possibly near Marseilles).

However, some see projects like this as an exercise in “neo-colonial” land grabbing. The early pioneer in the field, the Desertec Foundation, had made clear that only some of the power from the CSP projects it wanted in North Africa was to be exported (just 15%), the rest being used locally. However, neo-colonialism was the political charge laid at the door of the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), launched in 2009 and promoted by various German banks and industrial consortia, which was looking to a €400bn investment programme. That project has now been abandoned: with renewables developing rapidly in Germany there was less need to look to imports and the costs of the project did seem high. So did the risks, given the increasing political turmoil in much of the MENA region. Most of the original DII partners left in 2014.

The political critiques within the EU may also have had an impact. Many “greens” in Germany thought that renewables should be developed on the smaller local community scale, as was being done in Germany, not via giant corporate projects like this, with all the neocolonial implications. From an African perspective, in 2011, Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe of the African Network for Solar Energy said, “Many Africans are sceptical about Desertec. Europeans make promises, but at the end of the day, they bring their engineers, they bring their equipment, and they go. It’s a new form of resource exploitation, just like in the past.”

In a 2015 critique of the Desertec Industrial initiative published in the New Internationalist, Algerian activist Hamza Hamouchene said: “The Sahara is described as a vast empty land, sparsely populated; constituting a golden opportunity to provide Europe with electricity so it can continue its extravagant consumerist lifestyle and profligate energy consumption. This is the same language used by colonial powers to justify their civilizing mission and, as an African myself, I cannot help but be very suspicious of such megaprojects and their ‘well-intentioned’ motives that are often sugar-coating brutal exploitation and sheer robbery.”

It didn’t help that most of the DII planning seemed to be done in the north, with little involvement from the south. Hamouchene argued that: “Any project concerned with producing sustainable energy must be rooted in local communities, geared towards providing and catering for their needs and centred around energy and environmental justice. Projects involving large transnationals tend to take a top-down approach, increasing the risk of displacement, land-grabbing and local pollution. Without community involvement, there is no guarantee that such schemes will help with alleviating poverty, reducing unemployment or preserving a safe environment. This has been a major failing of the Desertec initiative. Only a few actors from the south of the Mediterranean were involved in its development, and most of them represented public institutions and central authorities, not the local communities who would be affected by the project”.

In the event, as noted above, all the CSP projects that have so far gone ahead in North Africa have been just for local/national energy supply, with no long-distance export. TuNur would be the exception.

Will the new project be any better? Hopefully, yes. TuNur chief executive Kevin Sara told Climate Home that people in the region were supportive of the project. Indeed, he argued that building a solar industry would help redress the inequality between Tunisia’s wealthy coastal cities and underdeveloped interior. A press release on the application to the government quotes Mohamed Larbi Ben Said, chair of the management board for El Ghrib Collective, which owns the land, as saying: “This project provides the economic development necessary for our region and our community; it gives true value to quasi-desert lands in an environmentally sustainable way.”

The debate will no doubt continue. There are technical arguments on both sides. On one hand the project makes use of the best resources – where solar energy is most available. So North Africa makes more sense than northern Europe. And with transmission losses via HVDC supergrid links being low (2%/1000 km), a CSP input from Africa could help with balancing variable renewables in the EU. On the other hand, solar energy is available on every roof everywhere to some degree, distributed naturally and for free. Why spend vast resources collecting and concentrating it, to transfer over long distances to remote consumers? The grid links would be susceptible to failure or disruption e.g. by terrorists.

The political arguments are equally divided. In theory, it should be possible to build positive, fair trading links, aiding poor areas, rather than exploitative relations with supplier countries. Everyone could benefit and the global environment too. However, the EU would just be swapping reliance on imported oil and gas for imported solar electricity – the North could be held to ransom by the South. Shouldn’t each country sort out its own energy problems? Wouldn’t importing green energy be used as an excuse not to do so? We will have to wait to see what becomes of the TuNur initiative…and what impacts it has.

Meanwhile, the issues discussed above are not unique to western interventions in Africa. Certainly, there have been concerns about China’s pragmatic, “no strings” commercial investment approach to energy projects in Africa, in terms of proper attention being given to local accountability, environmental impacts and international trade rules. So far, China has invested around $6 billion in renewable energy projects in Africa, mostly hydro. But a worry in the West, with its professedly more nuanced social and environmental concerns, is that the Chinese approach will not only cut corners, but that this will enable it to corner markets and undermine western development efforts, and the West’s (rival) pursuit of markets.

All this and much more is explored in a new Pivot book I’ve produced with Terry Cook Renewable energy: from Europe to Africa, now out from Palgrave. We will be presenting a paper on this topic at the World Renewable Energy Congress at Kingston University, UK, which starts at the end of July.

While I’m mentioning new books, it would be remiss not to note that the fourth edition of the very popular OUP/OU text Renewable Energy, Power for a Sustainable Future, originally edited by my Open University colleague Godfrey Boyle is now out, this edition edited by Stephen Peake. It’s fully updated and includes a lot of new material.

  • This article was updated at 17.31 on 13/6/18 to correct the edition of Renewable Energy, Power for a sustainable future from fifth to fourth.

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