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A new dawn for Saharan solar power?

Plans are afoot to harness North African solar power to supply Europe, despite previous ill-fated efforts

When the Desertec project crashed and burned, it seemed it was too soon to harness the Sahara desert's solar power to supply Europe's energy needs. But four years on, efforts are being made to rekindle the concept, albeit on a more modest scale.

TuNur is a small privately-owned company, based in the UK and backed by Tunisian and Maltese investors. It has plans to develop a concentrated solar power (CSP) project in the Tunisian desert which, if fully developed, could supply around 4.5 gigawatts of power to Europe and Tunisia. The company took a step towards realising the project with a recent request to the Tunisian energy ministry for authorisation.

Kevin Sara, TuNur's chief executive, envisages using three sub-Mediterranean power cables, currently under development or being studied, to send electricity to France, Italy and Malta for onwards transmission into the rest of Europe.

The first phase of the project, located near Réjim Maâtoug in the southwest of the country, would be a relatively modest 250 megawatt CSP plant. This type of CSP involves an array of mirrors which reflect solar energy onto a boiler on top of a central tower to create steam, which can then be used to generate electricity. Heat would also be stored using molten salts to enable power generation when the sun wasn't shining.

The project would require a dedicated transmission line to the coast and on to Malta and the existing Malta-Sicily interconnector.

A second stage would consist of an additional 2.25GW CSP plant on the site, with a transmission line landing to the north of Rome in Italy. A third similarly-sized phase could be developed to feed a Tunisia-France interconnector currently under study.

Shrinking costs

Sara describes the economics of the project as "compelling". He claims that TuNur's electricity will remain competitive in an environment where solar subsidies are gradually being eliminated, even when long-distance transmission costs are taken into account. He says the higher levels of solar energy received in the Sahara compared to central Europe make Tunisian solar power more cost-effective. However, the developers of Desertec said similar things and that didn't end well, grinding to a halt after key backers, including Siemens, pulled out.

TuNur will be banking on rapid change in the renewable energy landscape in Europe and North Africa to attract further investment. Desertec foundered largely because Europe didn't need the scale of externally-provided renewable power on offer from Desertecup to 100 gigawatts by 2050 at a cost of perhaps €400bn ($481.63bn), if the multi-national project had become a reality.

Desertec looked too risky and the scale of investment was overwhelming for European investors. They were still in the midst of the post-2008 economic downturn at a time when power demand had actually fallen. It would also have relied on a higher level of cooperation among North African countries than has sometimes been evident in recent years. There was always the threat of political instability and terrorism in a region where Libya was already in chaos.

The TuNur project may be regarded as a more manageable proposition. It's being developed in one of the region's most politically stable countries and is a smaller-scale, single site development. North African countries are also much more attuned to the benefits of renewable energy, as costs fall and they step up to meet obligations under the Paris climate change agreement. Tunisia has plans for several solar PV and wind projects.

Economies of scale

The projected output from TuNur ought to be small enough to find buyers, while being large enough to achieve economies of scalethe full 4.5GW development would be roughly equivalent to the output from four typical nuclear or fossil fuel power stations. Its capacity would also be roughly the same as that of Europe's largest single power stationGermany's lignite-fuelled Neurath power station.

As TuNur puts it, the project would provide enough carbon free electricity to power over 5m European homes or fuel over 7m electric vehicles.

TuNur will be hoping that plans to make power available to the under-developed region around the plant and the rest of Tunisia will be enough to sway the government to give its support to the project. It has already been in the planning stage for several years.

Even if the government is supportive, the developer may still have to contend with opposition to the project from elsewhere. Tunisia has one of the Maghreb's most highly developed democracies and civil society has a strong voice. Already, criticisms of the project are emerging from those that view it as an attempt by foreigners to capture control of the country's resourcesall of TuNur's management team are Europeans.

However, If the project does get off the ground and proves successful, it could pave the way for others to invest in North African solar projects with an international dimension. Perhaps it will even eventually bring to fruition the concept envisaged by Desertec, albeit in a more piecemeal manner.

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