In 2008, wind-power deployment in Spain, Italy and France was still cracking along, and there were hopes that the Greek market might finally take off. To the south, the governments of Morocco and Egypt in particular were pursuing ambitious strategies to harness their world-class wind resources.
Now, the picture is looking less rosy. Economic and regulatory uncertainty have beset the European markets, while political upheaval is still unfolding to the east and south, unleashed by the popular uprisings that have become known as the Arab Spring.
Nevertheless, the fundamental drivers for wind remain the same: security of supply, volatile fossil-fuel costs, growing demand for power coupled in some cases with looming deficits, and climate change. In addition, Spain, France, Italy and Greece are relying on wind energy to meet their European renewables targets, while Egypt and Algeria want to preserve their oil and gas reserves for export.
New factors have also entered the equation. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the Arab Spring has been as much about high unemployment and a demand for better living conditions as a call for greater democracy, and has highlighted the challenges of creating jobs, developing local industries and securing stronger and more inclusive growth.
Meanwhile, near-neighbour Germany’s decision to close its nuclear power stations will also put pressure on its government to find new resources, strengthening interest in harnessing the solar and wind potential of Turkey and the MENA countries for export.
It is nearly a year since a wave of revolt started sweeping through the MENA region. While it is impossible to say how things will evolve, a few general trends are becoming clear.
There are no indications so far that governments intend to cut their renewable energy targets or reduce the level of support. On the whole, state-sector investment plans are continuing as normal, unlike private-sector projects, and the personnel have stayed much the same, even at ministry level.
"In all these countries the energy sector is considered so vital, one of the pillars of economic recovery and stability, that they have undergone only minor changes," says Hans-Gerd Hühn, renewable-energy advisor at the German international-cooperation agency GIZ. But long-term decision-making has been affected, particularly in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. "The interim governments have no mandate to take sweeping, long-term strategic decisions," says Dr Steffen Erdle, an energy adviser for the Union for the Mediterranean, a multilateral partnership that promotes stability and prosperity.
Of the MENA markets, Morocco appears the most stable. Renewable energy forms the bedrock of the government’s energy policy and there is a clear strategy to encourage private investment. In Egypt, uncertainty is likely to persist pending a new government. This has inevitably dampened investor confidence, but wind-power projects supported by international development agencies seem to be largely on track.
On the north side of the Mediterranean, the economic crisis is causing most concern, particularly in Greece, where access to credit has tightened enormously, as local banks have virtually stopped lending and foreign banks impose more stringent terms. While the energy ministry denies it has any plans to review the renewable-energy support mechanism, the industry is understandably nervous and investor confidence has been shaken.
"The next few months will be critical," says Dr Panagiotis Papastamatiou, president of the Hellenic Wind Energy Association, as everyone waits to discover what the market reaction will be to Greece’s latest bail-out package and how quickly the banks will start lending again.
The development of wind power is always dependent on strong political support and a well-conceived, stable regulatory framework and the Mediterranean is no different. In return, however, the deployment of wind and other renewable energies can help bring the jobs the MENA region so desperately needs, encouraging technology transfer and generating new industries. Looking further ahead, new grid connections will offer revenue-earning opportunities through export of the power north to Europe, contributing to economic growth and, hopefully, political stability.
Jan Dodd is a European correspondent for Windpower Monthly