Rhein on Energy and Climate

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 :


  1. Sir: You are very right here in what you say. And I can tell you that my Father’s Company is working hard to get investers going forth in this area.

    As you correctly state there is plenty of available energy available from the Sun in North Africa and indeed with Morocco so close to the EU what better place to start than connect the proposals through and across the Straits between Morocco and Espana. This I know is what is proposed with the development in Morocco in the apportionment of the 40,000 hectares of land for a Combined CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) P_V (Photo_Voltaic) and the P_V2 system (of the Unltra-thin Spray-Applied-Painted-Thin-Film finished Photo_Voltaiic2) recently developed and which is going to be managed through their proposed offices in Malta and Istanbul.
    The CSP and the P_V and the later version /P_V2 systems are being promoted under the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) programme for such developments which were spear-headed by His Majesty King Mohammed V1th in recent years and is programmed to assist in making the Royal Kingdom of Morocco reduce its dependence on the use of Oil by 50% in 2023. As part of this development you correctly state that the proximity of supplying Electricity across the Mediterranean Straits between Morocco and Espana is also part of the deal. Although my Father’s company is working in the background to assist in this there seems to be very little drive from the EU (irrespective of that which you already have mentioned through the EIB and the PRC and India) to assist in this. I am surprised for this is an “Own Goal” of a miss by the CSP and P_V companies here. I wonder why? What is it that these Companies want to do? So far the only Country other than the PRC interested in this area is Espana – and that is logical enough! What about the others? What about the others?

    You might also note that in a parallel front my Father’s Company has agreed an exclusive arrangement to develop a major Biofuels development in the area with the option to build over 200 Biomass – Biofuels conversion facilities across the North African countries with the aim to free the countries from absolute dependence on using Oil for transport needs. The target here is also ambitious and it is looking at a 55% reduction in oil uses for transport by 2025/2026! The obvious part of that proposal is the development of Macro-Algae to Biofuels in this and the building of Shallow Lagoons on the Desert Surface in Farms of Macro-Algae covering several thousands of hectares in all the countries. This idea has already been praised across the area as it would be a neat way to provide Biofuels (Ethanol or Butanol or Diesel even Aviation Gasoline) made from a cheap substrate at a production rate per hectare 15 to 20 times the equivalent from sugar cane, sweet sorghum, corn or wheat at a cost to produce which will be 30% lower than the heavily-subsidised product from Brazil and the USA.

    Now we hear also that there is a push from Egypt to link across to Libya and Tunisia a new Cross-Mediterranean “Gas” pipeline through Malta to Sicily and Italy and France directly as a real option and alternative to the Asian Gas pipelines that have been so problematic to the entire EU. This development and a major initiative again being addressed by the PRC and the North African countries looks on the face of it to be very workable although the absolute costs are not finalised as yet. The interim possibility is also to use this gas and make electricity directly in Egypt Libya and Tunisia and connect this across the Mediterranean through the same link to Malta Sicily Italy and France. (There is logic to that proposal as well but the demand of the day is gas.
    So, Sir, you are very right to alert everyone to this area but some developments are already afoot. Watch out for these developments.

  2. Mr Rhein: We welcome your comments from here in Southern Italy.
    I have friends in Malta currently working through this (not sure whether they also work in Tunisia/Morocco etc, and the issue is that the way that the EU and its banks permit grants to such developments is so obscure that you have to be a huge financial organisation and one which does not need the funds to qualify for same. Here is an example, Company A is setting up a business in Malta (say) for Bioenergy/Biofuels and this is fully budgeted at €140 Million. The funders in the realms are prepared to join forces with up to €100 Million leaving 30% outstanding. The EIB is approached for the 30% balance and no interest is shown because they want interminble guarantees. Project stops. A huge conglommerate arrives with a backdrop of megafinances applies for €500 Million on a grant and gets it with a nod – even when he does not need it! The project in the small area is eventually financed and proves successful. The project in the large finance fails and no redress occurs.
    Now if this is the way forward I beg you to say?

  3. to Paul Hu,

    Very impressive what have been done so far in Morocco (your father’s company?), I have been following their Solar plan and agree with you that for now the only scheduled exports will be to Spain but hopefully other european countries are working on the issue. that’s why I agree with Dr Rhein that we have to repeat indefinitely the benefits of solar power particularly in these area naturally gifted to educate and sensitize the public awareness and unfortunately some countries still think that it’s easier to rely on oil and gas… as if it will last for ever !

    Paul I will be very happy if you can discuss this issue privately, if you agree just post a message in here.


Comments are closed.