North African Solar Power Generation

I’ve just read an article on electricity generation via solar power in North Africa here. Apparently the Moroccan government has pledged to generate 40% of their electricity from solar energy by 2020. And they even have a realistic plan and funding from the World Bank, the European Commission, Germany (the world’s foremost solar electricity generator) and Desertec, a coalition of energy companies. Also in Morocco’s favour is the fact that they are one of the sunniest countries in the world with over 3000 sunshine hours per year.

Sure it’s going to cost them around $9 billion to achieve this lofty goal but even at that price it is an easy decision in my opinion. Morocco does not have any oil reserves so they are, like most countries, beholden unto the Arab states from which most of the world’s oil is produced. So this project will give them energy security as well as significantly improving their environmental credentials and, given the low running costs of a solar plant after the initial investment, long-term economic benefits as well.

But this is not the main reason for my interest in this story. Although Morocco has a large population approaching 32 million people and thus a huge energy demand with all its associated environmental impacts, they are insignificant next to the 730 million people in Europe just across the Mediterranean. And this is where the real economic opportunity lies for Morocco and their North African neighbours Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and perhaps even Egypt. The consistent sunshine hours, large open desert spaces, and proximity to Europe make the installation of large (by which I mean enormous) solar installations connected to the European grid an obvious solution. It is only 14 km across the Strait of Gibraltar at its narrowest point so a cable is no problem. Indeed this is not a new idea and planning is already under way for just such a project. Desertec is one of the parties involved and I recommend following their updates on Twitter or Facebook. The hope is to provide 17% of Europe’s total electricity needs from North African & Middle East solar by 2050.

The question is really, why is it taking so long? And why is this concept not being implemented everywhere that there is desert in close proximity to large population areas? There were plans drawn up for an enormous solar turbine plant outside of Melbourne, Australia some years ago but the project was cancelled. Such plants could easily supply all the cities in Australia due to the proximity of the desert and the high sunshine hours. It’s not like they are lacking in space to put them! It’s purely a lack of commitment and political will to make it happen, in Australia and other countries. Assuming that the Moroccan government manage to execute their plans in the timeframe they have indicated, countries like Australia should watch and learn.

  1. June 10th, 2010

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