North Africa’s Sun Could Power European Homes

Concentrating solar power from North Africa has the potential to become an important element of European power supply.
Published: Mon 16 Feb 2015

North Africa is a diverse region in terms of renewable energy development. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt have implemented renewable energy policies to diversify their energy mix at different levels of ambition and with different levels of success. Especially in Morocco, significant advancements have been made, resulting in 16 projects with an installed capacity of 1,727MW currently in planning. In most countries, some kind of financial or regulatory support schemes are in place either to allow a direct feed-in of renewable power into the grid or to directly invest in renewables projects mainly by applying tendering schemes.

However, few large-scale projects have been realized so far.

CSP for Europe

In a new policy brief, the European Union supported BETTER (Bringing Europe and third countries closer together through renewable energies) project summarizes findings on the future prospects for renewable energy cooperation mechanisms in North African countries.

According to the brief, there seems to be enough renewables potential within Europe to reach an overall 30-40% share using volatile resources such as wind and PV. However, beyond that from shortly after 2020 onwards, in order to achieve a higher renewables share avoiding surplus generation and the related storage, grid expansion and backup capacity requirements, there will be a need for more flexible, demand driven production from biomass, geothermal, hydropower and concentrating solar power (CSP). However, with the exception of CSP, the potential of those resources is rather limited.

Thus, CSP HVDC links from North Africa to Europe would be an important means to reduce the effort required to achieve high renewable shares in Europe.

For example, in Germany 16GW of CSP HVDC imports could avoid up to 150GW installed power capacity of volatile renewables and backup plants, 30GW of electricity storage and 30GW of grid capacity required otherwise to reach 90% and above renewables share.

Barriers to renewable cooperation

The brief notes that while several studies are on-going for possible future interconnections in the Mediterranean, there are several fundamental barriers to renewables cooperation at both macro-economic and microeconomic levels. A lack of available capital is a major barrier for renewable deployment across all countries. This is partly due to the fact that electricity prices in North African countries are politically defined and in most cases highly subsidized. As these prices are not sufficient to cover the costs for renewable generation, support policies are needed, but their implementation has not always been effective. Thus, another closely related barrier is the regulatory and bureaucratic uncertainty and inefficiency deterring investors and project developers. In some cases, a lack of knowledge concerning renewables and their system integration was reported to be an additional barrier to local investments in projects.

The extremely high investment for a Euro-North African infrastructure is also a significant challenge. For example, a first 2,600km CSP HVDC link from Morocco to Germany with a net import capacity of 1,500MW is estimated at around €16 billion when commissioned in the year 2025, if CSP cost development continues as in past years.

However, probably the biggest barrier for joint projects today is the missing signal from the EU that energy cooperation is still wanted after 2020 while at the same time the North African countries struggle to meet their own demand. While in principle, it would be technically feasible to install an infrastructure between 2020 and 2022, it is rather unlikely that a “traffic light” decision and planning process including citizen participation can be included in that time frame.

A partnership opportunity

Calling for a clear political signal on renewables development beyond 2020, the brief concludes that a European-North African renewables infrastructure would be a big opportunity for an economic and cultural partnership of those regions.

However, it would be crucial that large-scale renewables deployment has clear and visible local environmental, economic and, very important, social benefits. Also citizen participation both in decisions and finance will be crucial for a successful implementation on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Further reading

BETTER: Policy Brief on Future Prospects for RES Cooperation Mechanisms in North Africa