Africa, Development & Aid, Energy, Environment, Europe, Global Governance, Headlines

North Africa Finally Sees the Light

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Apr 27 2010 (IPS) - Europe’s appetite for renewable energy and a shifting tide in domestic energy policies could turn North Africa into major exporter of solar power by the end of the decade.

“North Africa has all the right ingredients for producing the cheapest kilowatt hour of solar energy,” says Amr Mohsen, CEO of Lotus Solar Technologies, a Cairo-based solar technology firm. “We’re finally starting to see conditions align for harnessing this potential.”

Small projects using photovoltaic (PV) panels are moving ahead rapidly, but work has been slow on large concentrated solar power (CSP) projects that experts say are needed to overcome the region’s dependence on fossil fuels.

CSP projects use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s heat, and produce steam that drives electrical generators. The technology is scalable and without the high capital costs associated with large-scale PV deployment.

The first CSP projects in North Africa are expected to begin operation by the end of the year. Algeria’s 150 MW power plant at Hassi R’Mel is scheduled to go online in October, followed by Egypt’s 140 MW plant at Kureimat and Morocco’s 450 MW plant at Ain Beni Mathar.

The three integrated solar combined cycle (ISCC) power stations will feed steam generated by a solar field into the stream of a gas-fired plant to drive a turbine that produces electricity. The hybrid design was selected because the shared turbine and equipment lowers capital costs, while the gas-fired unit compensates for fluctuating power output from the solar arrays, which generate electricity only during daylight hours.

Critics charge that the low solar fraction — between four and 15 percent — undermines the value of these projects as commercial models. Officials counter that successful operation will pave the way for larger, dedicated solar plants to follow.

“Our (ISCC) plant at Kureimat is a pilot project,” says Khaled Fikry, head of research and development at Egypt’s National Renewable Energy Authority. “We will gain technical experience that we will use to build more power plants that utilise pure solar capacity.”

Sunny skies and large tracts of underutilised desert land make North Africa an ideal location for low-cost power generation, a 2007 study by the German Aerospace Centre concluded. Harnessing the solar energy falling on just 6,000 square kilometres of desert in North Africa would “supply energy equivalent to the entire oil production of the Middle East of 9 billion barrels a year,” the report said.

European investors have cued in to the region’s untapped potential. Two ambitious schemes envision the construction of a series of solar fields in the Sahara desert that would export surplus electricity to Europe via high voltage transmission lines.

The Desertec project is a 400 billion euro private sector initiative that aims to tap renewable energy sources in North Africa to satisfy 15 percent of Europe’s electricity demand by 2050. Up to 80 percent of the electricity generated, mostly by CSP power stations, would be used by domestic consumers. The remaining 20 percent would be transported to buyers in Europe.

The Mediterranean Solar Plan, a flagship project of the Union for the Mediterranean (a union of European countries with others that border the Mediterranean Sea) follows a similar model. The project will invest over 40 billion euros to build solar facilities and purchase their output to help Europe achieve its goal of 20 percent renewable energy use by 2020.

“A lot of momentum has been added through the activities of these initiatives,” says Kilian Baelz, an expert in renewable energy finance. “They have really made North African governments think again about how to implement renewable energies.”

Tunisia launched a 2.7 billion dollar scheme in October 2009 that is targeting a 22 percent reduction in the country’s demand for conventional energy sources by 2016. The Tunisian Solar Plan funds over 40 renewable energy projects and introduces subsidies on solar panels.

Morocco, which imports 97 percent of its fossil fuel needs, recently unveiled a 9 billion dollar project to produce 2 GW of solar power by 2020. Five solar power stations will generate nearly 40 percent of the country’s total installed power.

North African governments are also looking to dismantle oil and gas subsidies that have undermined the adoption of renewable energies.

“Subsidising fossil fuels is putting a very high burden on the finances of these countries,” says Hani El-Nokraschy, vice-chairman of Desertec’s supervisory board. “Even if they are self-producers of oil or gas, they have the chance to generate the electricity they need from the sun and sell the fuel they would have burned on the world market for a higher profit.”

He estimates that with subsidies removed, CSP has already achieved grid parity. While benchmark Brent crude oil stands at about 85 dollars a barrel and is expected to rise in the coming years, economies of scale are driving down the cost of solar power.

“The price of electricity from CSP power stations is equal to the price of electricity of burning oil at 50 dollars per barrel,” El-Nokraschy tells IPS. “And by doubling production you would get a 10-20 percent cost reduction.”

Governments cannot afford to wait. El-Nokraschy says North Africa must install at least 100 GW of exportable renewable energy capacity by 2050 to reduce Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Failure to do so would — if predictions about global warming are correct — result in a plus 2.0 degree Celsius rise in global temperature, leading to severe weather and a rise in sea levels.

“This would be catastrophic and would cost us much more than the price of building enough CSP to prevent it,” he adds.

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