So Why Aren't We Tapping Into North Africa's Vast Solar Power Potential?

tunisia sun rise dunes photo

photo: Stefan Gara via flickr

You've probably heard or read reports about the vast potential that North Africa has for producing solar power. We've covered plans to tap into it a number of times on TreeHugger, both from the theoretical perspective and on plans floated in the EU as to what would be required to bring electricity from the Sahara across the Mediterranean. So why aren't we tapping into it?

That was the subject of Anthony Patt's, from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, presentation at the Copenhagen Climate Congress:Patt presented three main obstacles to making North Africa into one giant solar battery:All are political and policy related, none is strictly technological.

1. Risk Perception
The thing that stands out in the discussion of risk perception in making an investment in large scale solar thermal power in North Africa is that though it is perceived to somehow be riskier than elsewhere, when you look at the rates charged for insuring a commercial investment in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya versus in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the latter are actually riskier.

Patt pointed out that in regards to energy security though concentrating Europe's power sources in North Africa could be just as risky as importing so much natural gas from the former Soviet Union. While in the short term North African solar would diversify energy supply, in the longer term relying on any one region for energy has the same effect in terms of increasing risk.

2. Lack of Coherent Business Plans
Patt presented a number of related obstacles under this broad umbrella: Considering that the national governments in North Africa are heavily involved in energy projects within their borders, how do deal with the inevitable regulatory hurdles if you don't involve the state in project development? How do you raise the large amounts of capital required in such situations? And, how do you develop solar thermal in North Africa and at the same time provide benefits for the local populations, as well as developing local supply chains?

The biggest thing though, which also leads into the next broad category, is how do you get all the electricity produced across the Mediterranean and, perhaps more importantly, into the European electric grid?

3. Lack of the Right Policy Framework
Patt describes the European electric transmission system as a mess. "It's really a collection of 27 different electricity systmes" which are being integrated only slowly. This could be a huge problem in terms of actually distributing North African power.

Then there is the problem of how to sell this power if coal or natural gas remains less expensive (due to numerous hidden subsidies and non-internalized environmental costs, I feel compelled to add...)? Though effective at the national level, feed-in tariffs aren't an attractive option for developing power in North Africa for use in Europe: In addition to spurring investment in renewable energy, feed-in tariffs are cited as helping develop local jobs. That benefit doesn't exist if you're developing power outside your national borders.

How to Overcome These Barriers?
These issues are not insurmountable and Patt recommended that the most important thing is to leverage current and planned projects in the region, of a more limited scale, to create pilot projects that would help reduce uncertainty about the risks involved. This could also help test alternative business models to move beyond these smaller projects into larger ones.

More: Copenhagen Climate Congress
Solar Thermal Power
Solar Thermal Power in North-Africa: How Much Land to Power the World?
Massive Saharan Solar Project Could Power $71 Billion EU Supergrid
Ambitious Solar Plan Could Provide EU with a Sixth of its Energy Needs

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