There has been talk of tapping into the Sahara desert’s vast resources of sunshine to power Europe for years, but little to show for it.
The high-profile Desertec initiative, conceived with 19 shareholders and a budget of €400 billion, flopped amid cost concerns and political instability across North Africa.
Now a massive project in Tunisia is hoping to be the first to make the solar power export dream a reality. Developer TuNur this week filed a permit request to the energy ministry to build 4.5GW of capacity near Rjim Maatoug, in the southwest of the country.
The electricity generated is destined for Europe, with cables under the sea to Malta, Italy and France.
If all goes smoothly, TuNur chief executive Kevin Sara told Climate Home a first 250MW phase, with a connection to Malta, could be running by 2020, for an estimated €1.6 billion investment.
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The business case rests on Tunisia’s bountiful sunshine – up to 20% more than the best sites in Europe, according to TuNur – and vast area of uncultivated land. EU climate and clean energy goals create demand.
TuNur plans to use concentrated solar power technology, which works by reflecting the sun’s rays onto a central tower from an array of mirrors. Using molten salt to store the energy, it can flex generation to meet variable demand. The initial 250MW plant would already be one of the largest thermal solar facilities on earth.
If fully realised, the development would cover 25,000 hectares, nearly three times the area of Manhattan. “There is so much land, which is completely marginal land – it is not good enough for agriculture,” said Sara. “It is just sitting there and the local people are delighted that we are coming to do something with it.”
In 2014, Tunisia became the third country in the world to ink climate protection into its constitution. That was followed by a renewable energy law in 2015.
Political hurdles remain. TuNur lobbied hard to get provision for exports included in the clean energy legislation, against resistance from the state electricity monopoly. This is its first test case.
The Tunisian energy ministry did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
“This was really the will of the parliament that the renewable energy export industry be opened up,” said Sara. “We are cautiously optimistic.”
The TuNur project is 50% owned by UK-based company Nur Energie and 50% owned by investors from Tunisia and Malta.
Some north Africans are wary of the whole enterprise. In a 2015 critique of the Desertec initiative published in the New Internationalist, Algerian activist Hamza Hamouchene accused its proponents of neo-colonialism.
“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,” he wrote.
“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.”
The TuNur export project was being discussed while Tunisians faced power outages and relied on neighbouring Algeria for energy, he added.
But Sara said people in the region were supportive of the project. Indeed, he argued building a solar industry would help redress the inequality between Tunisia’s wealthy coastal cities and underdeveloped interior. “What we want to do is really create a [solar export] sector and other people to follow us.”
A press release announcing the application to the government cites Mohamed Larbi Ben Said, chair of the management board for El Ghrib Collective, which owns the land. “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,” he said.
TuNur was associated with the Desertec Industrial Initiative, but Sara expressed confidence in avoiding its fate: “What we found [with Desertec] was a big consortium of companies looking for business opportunities, but no plan, no projects. That was the problem. We have always been focused on a very specific project on a specific site.”