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Energy oasis or mirage?

Vast desert areas in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) offer the prospect of a formidable sustainable-energy source for a growing population, the promise of much-needed jobs for the region's youth and ultimately the vision of an export facility to power-hungry Europe.

High-tech grid...HVDC technology
High-tech grid...HVDC technology

Blessed with plentiful solar radiation and a good wind resource, unencumbered by urban sprawl or teeming flora and fauna, the desert sells itself as the perfect powerhouse for the region and beyond.

Out of this vision came the Desertec Foundation in early 2009, aiming to generate renewable energy in places where it is most abundant and deliver it across a high-voltage grid to where it is needed. An industry consortium, the Desertec Industry Initiative (Dii), was launched a few months later under the auspices of insurer, Munich Re, to translate Desertec’s vision into reality. Shareholders include Germany’s E.on, RWE, Siemens and Deutsche Bank, Italy’s Enel Green Power, Terna and Unicredit, and Swiss-Swedish firm ABB.

Another ambitious programme for the area, the politically led Mediterranean Solar Plan (MSP), aims to develop 20GW of new renewable-energy capacity by 2020 in the southern and eastern parts of the Mediterranean basin, with 5–6GW coming from wind-power plants based mostly in Morocco, Egypt and Turkey. The MSP also seeks to deliver interconnections, reinforce national grids and create a stable framework to attract financing and promote fully functioning electricity markets in the region.

Delivering the dream

The projects’ principle that deserts and other areas in the MENA region can produce solar energy — and wind power in certain cases — much more efficiently and cheaply than Europe ever will is hard to fault. The Dii is now more than halfway through its three-year planning phase and by the end of 2012, it expects to have the required knowledge and support to proceed to industrial implementation. The schedule is highly ambitious.

The Desertec foundation was set up by individuals with their own money, who were in pursuit of a clean-energy dream, says Oliver Steinmetz of the European Investment Bank (EIB), a co-founder and volunteer board member. The idea behind both the foundation and the Dii is to support governments and the private sector to set up projects. But wind energy is hardly powering ahead across the MENA area. Windpower Monthly’s latest Windicator figures show glacial progress, from 1,052MW of operating wind-power capacity at the end of 2010 to 1,058MW by June this year.

HVDC map

In April the Dii opened an office in Tunis after agreeing with the interim government to work together "to carry out the mutual projects enabling the generation of a renewable-energy electricity supply". Local energy utility Steg and the Dii are working on feasibility studies for wind and solar projects in the country. The Dii’s first project, intended to prove the Desertec concept’s feasibility, is due for completion in 2013. Morocco, thanks to its existing power connections with Spain, is a likely candidate.

The focus of the MSP — which should be viewed mainly as a political process — is to create the regulatory framework to enable private-sector investments in the area — not to install power plants. So far, plans for some 150 projects, totalling 10GW, have been submitted. Wind farms represent 38% of these projects and are at the most advanced stage. Public donors including the World Bank, the EIB and German bank KfW have already pledged some €5-6 billion altogether, with another €1.5 billion coming from EU funds. But with costs estimated to be as much as €46 billion by 2020, it is calculated that only 4GW can be built unless private-sector funding starts streaming in.

Euro-Mediterranean super-grid

A well-developed and efficient grid infrastructure to transfer electricity from production centres in MENA to the centres of demand in Europe is crucial to Desertec. It envisages high-voltage, direct-current power lines up to 5GW each transporting about 700TWh of energy a year from up to 40 locations in MENA to Europe. By 2050, the Dii hopes to supply most of the energy used in North Africa and up to 15% of that used in Europe this way.

In June, Algerian utility and transmission-system operator (TSO) Sonelgaz and Italian TSO Terna launched Metso, a not-for-profit association of TSOs in the Mediterranean area. They said this was "a turning point in the relationship between electricity operators on the two sides of the Mediterranean Sea". In practice, Rome-based Metso will allow operators to meet and discuss how to move forward with the various initiatives they are involved in, including Desertec and the MSP. But the new association also aims to promote the development of transmission networks in the area and does not shy away from raising the highly ambitious idea of a Euro-Mediterranean super-grid.

The tasks Metso lists as part of its remit give a clear idea of the scale of the challenge ahead: initiate and promote institutional proposals to develop a Mediterranean electricity network; develop operational proposals for the coordinated development of networks in each country; adopt common criteria for access to and use of networks; and promote a pan-Mediterranean renewable-energy market.

Cost is a huge issue. Leaving aside the question of whether concentrated solar power — the main renewable source in the Desertec and MSP plans — will become cost-competitive with other energy sources any time soon, building the high-tension grid needed will cost an estimated €45 billion, nearly twice as much as Tunisia’s gross domestic product. Perhaps more importantly, it corresponds to €450,000 per MW, thus adding a premium of some 30% to the cost of a wind farm.

Despite the obstacles, Susanne Nies of European electricity-industry association Eurelectric is confident of progress as Europe finds itself increasingly dependent on imports to achieve 20% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, as stipulated by the 2009 renewable-energy directive. Although the vast majority of EU states maintain they can reach this target using indigenous resources, Nies believes the reality of the challenge will dictate otherwise.

But links between MENA countries are still underdeveloped and national networks are in need of upgrade even on the northern side of the basin. Considering the severe constraints affecting most economies, does the dream of transporting green power across the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea really have a chance of becoming reality?  

medgrid submarine links

Launched last year within the Mediterranean Solar Plan, the Medgrid project (formerly known as Transgreen) aims to create submarine electricity links in the Mediterranean Sea. Starting from a current interconnection capacity of 1.4GW between Morocco and Spain, the project’s goal is to connect 5-6GW of capacity by 2020-25.

Priorities include the upgrade of the Spain-Morocco alternating-current (AC) link to 2.1GW and the construction by 2020 of high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) links between Tunisia and Italy, possibly extending to Libya. Another link between Egypt and Greece is also being considered.

The connection between Spain and Morocco across the Straits of Gibraltar currently consists of two 400kV AC links made up of seven cables (six working, plus one spare). A third link between the countries, commissioned two years ago, should add 700MW of capacity by 2012.

Reversing the flow

Typically, the flow of electricity has been from Spain to Morocco, but this is expected to change as more renewable-energy sources come online in North Africa. Upgrading the current AC systems to HVDC would double power capacity but it would involve the construction of HVDC converter stations.

Common rules required

Looking at the power systems and connections across the countries of the Mediterranean Sea basin, the Medring project concluded in April 2010 that a combination of AC, DC and HVDC may be needed to connect all the countries. But it added that it was essential to progress towards cross-border trading of electricity, which involves setting compensation mechanisms between different transmission-system operators and common rules for capacity allocation and congestion management. The viability of placing submarine cables in parts of the Mediterranean Sea and the impact on the European grid of imports from MENA were also highlighted as issues of concern.

In an interview with the French press in July, Medgrid president André Merlin said the project was progressing well, but warned that the kind of infrastructure needed "will not appear from one day to the next".

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