Saharan solar comes to Europe

Sensemaking / Saharan solar comes to Europe

North Africa is set to be a big energy player as lenders back large-scale solar power projects and expand pipeline networks to Europe.

09 Mar 2012

North Africa is set to be a big energy player as lenders back large-scale solar power projects and expand pipeline networks to Europe.

Morocco is pushing ahead with an ambitious drive to expand solar power. Backed by international lenders to the tune of over $1.4 billion, work is about to start on a 160MW concentrated solar power (CSP) project at Ouarzazate in the Sahara.

Developments at this and four other major sites will be central to the country’s $9 billion plan to build 2GW of solar (CSP and photovoltaic) generating capacity by 2020 [see 'Can the Sahara light up Europe?']. Solar and wind energy, both seen as crucial in a country with negligible oil and gas, would then account for some 40% of Morocco’s power production. The Ouarzazate site alone is intended to contribute a quarter of the solar total, with a second CSP plant there, and extensive photovoltaics, adding to the 160MW parabolic trough project. The funding for this first phase, announced in November 2011, involves seven international agencies including the World Bank and the Clean Technology Fund.

Morocco’s sally into the solar spotlight is not just for domestic consumption. The export potential of renewable energy is a further factor, potentially linking intensely sunny Saharan sources with European grids. So far, Morocco is the only North African country with an electric connection to Europe, in the form of two undersea cables that could soon need upgrading. But further connections are in the pipeline. In 2010, a French-led consortium launched the Medgrid scheme, which plans to build five such interconnections with North Africa. Now, Medgrid has joined forces with the German-led Desertec Industrial Initiative to create a huge network of solar plants in the Middle East and North Africa. The aim is to export enough electricity to Europe to meet 15% of the continent’s needs by 2050 – as well as supplying all the power for the (African) region itself.

EU energy commissioner Günther Öttinger hails the collaboration as giving “a truly European dimension” to the prospect of “solar and wind energy being produced for the joint benefit of European and North African and Middle Eastern citizens and markets”. – Roger East

Photos: David Nunuk / Science Photo Library

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