Sun-drenched North Africa pushes for cheap energy

Floating solar panels in a water reservoir in Le Kram, near Tunisia’s capital Tunis, are part of efforts to harness the country’s vast renewable energy potential – Copyright AFP FETHI BELAID

Paul Raymond

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

While industry insiders complain about bureaucracy, soaring fossil fuel prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February have created a powerful incentive for such investments in the region. Maghreb.

“Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco each have an abundance of solar energy resources as well as vast wind energy resources,” said Michael Tanchum, an industry expert.

“The extreme pressures on natural gas prices, particularly in Europe, have changed the calculus of renewable energy investments.”

Omar Bey, of French renewable energy developer Qair, hopes the company’s 200-kilowatt floating solar station on a lake next to a Tunis industrial park can be a prototype for larger-scale projects national.

“Tunisia has no choice but to opt for renewable energies, given the situation around hydrocarbons and in particular gas,” he said, adding that innovations such as stations Floating sunscreens might help.

Being on reservoirs or lakes helps cool the panels, making them more efficient, and “means we can use water instead of taking up land that can be used for other things like farming or homes,” Bey said.

It also helps reduce evaporation, another benefit in the water-stressed region, he said.

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

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

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

Tanchum, a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said “political paralysis” was holding the sector back.

Tunisia has suffered more than a decade of turmoil since its 2011 revolution. Ideological disputes have often taken precedence over the transformation of the economy, which is heavily dependent on food and energy imports.

The state fuel subsidy bill soared 370% in the first half of this year compared to the same period of 2021, official figures show.

Yet despite incentives to promote renewable energy, these efforts have been hampered by legal and administrative hurdles, according to Ali Kanzari, president of an association representing solar companies.

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

“We need more flexible laws. Everything must be accelerated. »

– Morocco in the lead –

A major solar power plant in the desert near Tataouine was finally connected to the grid in October, two years after its completion. The project manager, Abdelmomen Ferchichi, blamed the difficulties of obtaining permits and the remoteness of the station from the network.

Bey said “misunderstandings” between some union members within STEG, wary of attempts to stealthily privatize the sector, had also delayed development.

“Today, all of that is behind us,” he said.

Tanchum told AFP that despite the renewable energy potential of the entire Maghreb, “only Morocco has established itself as a regional leader”.

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

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

They include a solar and wind installation to generate more than 10 gigawatts of electricity and send it to the UK via a 3,800 kilometer (2,360 mile) undersea cable.

Tunisia dreams of doing something similar.

In October, it applied for a European Union grant for an 800 million euro ($828 million) cable to Italy covering 200 kilometers, to come online by 2027.

For Kanzari, the president of the association, the link is not made soon enough.

“They are going to have a cold winter” in Europe, he said. “If we had a cable ready and four or five gigawatt solar plants in the desert, we would be selling electricity and earning hard cash.”

Tanchum said that while Maghreb countries could benefit from this type of project, much of the energy should be for domestic use, so that they “don’t become Europe’s green battery”. .

– Algeria’s ambitious goal –

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

The first part of a 1,000 megawatt project is expected to come online by the end of next year, but so far the country only generates 3% of its electricity from the sun.

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

There are also “big obstacles to foreign investment in the sector, including Algeria’s notorious bureaucracy”, she added.

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