March 15, 2012
With sun shine of > 2500 hours per year, North Africa and the Gulf countries are among the best insulated regions of the planet. They are also unequalled in radiation density (2500-3000 kWh/m2/year). Both factors combined make them ideal locations for generating solar electricity.
Indeed, the 22 Arab countries, occupying one third of global desert areas, possess a solar energy potential of 4.3 million Twh/year, 27.000 times (!) their combined oil reserves and more than enough to cover their own as well as European power needs in the 21st century and well beyond.
But so far they have been lagging far behind other parts of the world in exploiting their rich potential.
Germany with unfavourable radiation for generating solar power, Spain, USA and, more recently, China continue to be the front runners for what will be in the long run the dominant technology for renewable energies.
Presently, the total solar capacity of the MENA region is not even 1 GW, less than 10 per cent of Germany’s newly installed capacity in 2011/12 .
This sombre picture is slowly brightening up. Several major countries, especially those with no or small fossil reserves are set to expand the generation of solar – and wind – energy:
- Algeria and Morocco aim at covering 40 per cent of their power generation from solar and wind by 2030.
- Saudi Arabia is much more modest; it plans to obtain 10 per cent of its power needs from sun and wind by 2020, though it possesses a huge potential for both renewable sources.
- United Arab Republic targets seven per cent of its power demand to come from solar by 2020, half from PV and half from concentrated solar power.
These endeavours will be eased by the prospect of solar electricity becoming fully competitive, in optimal locations, with fossil- generated power towards 2015, according to the CEO of Suntech, one of the leading solar companies based in China.
The overriding rationale behind the “discovery” of renewables, long despised, is two-fold: diversification of supply and, more important, the realisation of the finite nature of oil and gas reserves. Expecting costs of production, domestic consumption and world market prices to rise further, they prefer to keep oil and gas for exports.
The abundant availability of solar power makes the use of nuclear power a hazardous and economically foolish option. No Arab country needs nuclear power. It is more expensive and infinitely more risky than solar power, whether through photovoltaic panels or concentrated solar mirror technology. So far only the UAE have formulated concrete plans for the construction of four nuclear plants with a total capacity of 5.6 GW. No other country should feel tempted to follow what is likely to prove a bad example.
The geographic proximity with Europe pleads for close cooperation between the two shores of the Mediterranean, both for investments and grid connection.
This goes more for the Mediterranean than the Gulf region, which disposes of ample of cash and does not depend on European investors. But European companies can play a role in project design and technical consultancy. This happens, but failing to bundle its forces, Europe finds it increasingly hard to compete with Korean, Japanese or Chinese companies.
The closest cooperation is likely to develop between the Maghreb and Europe. Here a considerable number of projects are in the planning or construction stage with involvement of European counterparts, including the EIB; and here the prospects for transporting large quantities of solar electricity to Europe are realistic in the medium term.
The Desertec Project involving major European and Maghreb companies may become a focal point . Until 2040 some € 400 billion are to be invested in solar power plants, both PV and concentrated solar, and trans-national transmission lines. Europe might import up to 15 per cent of its electricity needs by the middle of the century from solar power plants in North Africa, which will be linked to a huge smart grid reaching until Scandinavia and form an indispensable complement to off-shore wind power.
These are revolutionary developments. They require long-term comprehensive spatial, technical and financial planning involving interested governments, utilities, investors and potential supplier companies.They should figure among the top priorities of the future EU-MED agenda. Both sides need a 2050 road-map for their cooperation in electricity generation and grid connection.
Author : Eberhard Rhein