Sun-drenched North Africa is pushing for cheap energy

Sun-drenched North Africa is pushing for cheap energy


Solar panels gleam in the sun of a Tunisian lagoon, part of a long-delayed attempt to harness the North African country’s vast renewable energy potential.

While industry insiders complain about the red tape, fossil fuel prices, which have soared after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, created a powerful stimulus for such investments across the Maghreb region.

“Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco each have plentiful solar energy resources as well as plentiful wind energy resources,” said Michael Tanchum, an expert on the sector.

“Extreme price pressures on natural gas, particularly in Europe, have changed the calculus for renewable energy investments.”

Omar Bey of France-based renewable energy developer Qair hopes the company’s 200-kilowatt floating solar station on a lake next to an industrial park in Tunis can be a prototype for larger projects across the country.

“Tunisia, given the situation around hydrocarbons and especially gas, has no choice but to opt for renewable energy,” he said, adding that innovations such as floating solar stations could help.

Being on reservoirs or lakes helps cool the plates, makes them more efficient and “means we can use water instead of claiming land that can be used for other things like farming or houses,” Bey said.

It also helps reduce evaporation, another benefit in the arid region, he said.

Tunisia, on the sun-kissed Mediterranean Sea, is well-positioned to produce clean energy both for domestic use and for export to energy-hungry Europe.

In 2015, the country set itself ambitious targets for renewable energy.

But last year, green sources made up just 2.8 percent of the country’s energy mix, and the rest came from natural gas, according to Tunisia’s state-owned Electricity and Gas Company (STEG).

Tanchum, a non-Washington resident at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said “political paralysis” is holding the sector back.

Tunisia has suffered from turmoil for more than a decade since its 2011 revolution. Ideological infighting often takes precedence over the transformation of economies heavily dependent on food and energy imports.

The government bill for fuel subsidies rose 370 percent in the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2021, official figures show.

But despite incentives to push for renewable energy, such efforts have been hampered by legal and administrative obstacles, according to Ali Kanzari, president of an association representing solar companies.

“Sometimes (imported solar panels) sit in customs for a month or more,” he said.

“We need more flexible laws. Everything has to be accelerated.”

– Morocco leads –

A large solar station in the desert near Tataouine finally went online in October, two years after it was completed. Project manager Abdelmomen Ferchichi blamed difficulties in obtaining permits and the station’s removal from the grid.

Bey said that “misunderstandings” among some union members within STEG, who were suspicious of attempts to covertly privatize the sector, also delayed development.

“Today we put all that behind us,” he said.

Tanchum told AFP that despite the potential for renewable energy across the Maghreb, “only Morocco has emerged as a regional leader”.

Morocco decided in 2009 to increase renewable energy to 52 percent of its energy mix by 2030 and currently produces around a fifth of its electricity from clean sources, according to the government.

The Department of Energy says “this vision has begun to bear fruit, with 111 renewable energy projects completed or under development.”

This includes a solar and wind facility that generates more than 10 gigawatts of electricity and sends it to the UK via a 3,800 km (2,360 miles) long undersea cable.

Tunisia dreams of doing something similar.

In October, the company applied for a European Union grant for a €800 million ($828 million) cable to Italy, measuring 200 kilometers, which it hopes to come online by 2027.

For Kanzari, the club’s president, the connection can’t come soon enough.

“You will have a cold winter in Europe,” he said. “If we had a ready-made cable and four or five gigawatts of solar power plants in the desert, we would sell electricity and make cash.”

Tanhum said that although Maghreb countries could benefit from this type of project, much of the energy should be dedicated to self-consumption so that they “do not become Europe’s green battery”.

– Algeria’s ambitious target –

Neighboring Algeria, Africa’s largest natural gas producer, has set an ambitious target of 15,000 megawatts of solar power by 2035.

The first part of a 1,000-megawatt project is due to come online late next year, but for now the country only generates three percent of its electricity from the sun.

Intissar Fakir, head of the North Africa and Sahel program at the Middle East Institute, said Algeria’s money glut from gas exports will upgrade infrastructure for fossil fuels, not renewable energy.

There are also “major barriers to foreign investment in this sector – not the least of which is Algeria’s notorious bureaucracy,” she added.

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