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Electric power

Difficult switches

by Mike Enskat, Hedrik Meller

In brief

King Mohamed VI. of Morocco with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the presentation of a solar project in Ouarzazate

King Mohamed VI. of Morocco with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the presentation of a solar project in Ouarzazate

In the desert of North Africa, large industrial and political hopes are set on sustainable energy supply, but serious problems still beckon north and south of the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean Solar Plan of the European Union and countries in the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region wants 20 gigawatts of renewable energy to be installed by the year 2020. The Desertec Industrial Initiative aims to have 15 % of the European power demand imported from MENA nations by 2050. For that purpose, 50 gigawatts of solar and wind energy are planned. The French syndicate Medgrid (formerly Transgreen) plans to install up to five undersea power lines to move electricity from Africa to Europe.

Any such export vision of any kind will certainly remain utopian as long as North African states do not succeed in drafting their own energy policies to introduce renewable energies on a large scale. The installation of renewable energy does not depend so much on links to the European power grid but on solutions for serving the region’s own needs.

Enormous tasks

Many North African nations have already set themselves ambitious targets: Egypt announced its intention to cover, by 2020, 20 % of its electrical needs by renewable energy. And Morocco intends to have a foothold in renewable energy by 2012 with a 4 to 10 % increase in its energy generation. Annual domestic demand is increasing by about 7 %, so renewable sources are of crucial relevance.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa want to benefit from the development of solar energy as well. But their situation is totally different. In North Africa, around two million people do not have access to energy, whereas 585 million must do without south of the Sahara. The annual per-capita consumption reflects these extremes. In Algeria it is 800 kWh/p and in Burkina Faso only 20 kWh/p.

Nevertheless, the African Union concluded in its study „Harnessing solar energy of the Sahara desert for electricity generation“ that it would be possible to provide electric power for the entire African continent by 2050 – provided that all countries concerned draft the right policies, so that solar energy from the desert could be used. To meet such high expectations, all parties involved must set the switches for renewable energy over the next ten years.

The European Union and its member nations have to enable the import of green electricity from North African nations. Once they overcome the difficulties, this will be an important kick off for financial and technological transfers that will help North Africa’s utilities to developing sustainable strategies. Article 9 of the EU Directive on the Promotion of the Use of Energy, allows European governments to take renewable energy from developing countries into account for their own renewable-energy targets. To actually do so, however, Europe must expand its power grid dramatically and harmonise its energy markets.

It is just as much up to governments in North Africa to act: they have to establish suitable conditions for a sustainable and self-sufficient energy supply. They need transparent pricing, investment incentives and dependable plans. Pilot schemes like the planned 500-megawatt solar power plant Ouarzazate in Morocco send the right signals. To cope with high investment costs, government agencies are cooperating with financiers, private-sector companies and the international donor community in Ouarzazate.

South of the Sahara, development has so far suffered from poor access to energy and inadequate grids. The donors must help to bring about sustainable energy systems built on local capacities. The competitive advantages of renewable energy must be made evident. To safeguard supply, moreover, more needs to be done in terms of hooking up national grids to one another.

On the way to an effective energy supply in Africa, leaders must be realistic, of course. Conventional energy sources will be in demand for quite some time. The real challenge is to minimise their share in order to boost the use of renewables. That is in the best interest of both continents. The Africa/EU Energy Partnership is a useful framework.

Mike Enskat and Hendrik Meller