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Climate ChangeIn Scramble for Clean Energy, Europe Is Turning to North Africa

In Scramble for Clean Energy, Europe Is Turning to North Africa

Solar panels in sun-rich North Africa generate as much as 3 times more energy than in Europe. And North Africa has so much more room for them than densely populated Europe. Result: Europe’s drive to finish its reliance on Russian natural gas supplies, triggered by the Ukraine conflict, is leading to a rush to put in giant solar energy farms and lay underwater cables to tap into North Africa’s abundant renewable energy.

But there are growing concerns concerning the environmental impacts in Africa of Europe’s outsourcing of its energy needs. Desert ecosystems might be decimated. Livestock pastures which were grazed by nomadic tribes for millennia might be commandeered. And analysts fear that this may all occur with minimal community consultation or ecological assessment.

Solar and wind farms are already proliferating south of the Mediterranean. Morocco’s Noor and Egypt’s Benban solar farms are amongst the most important on the earth. Their initial aim has been to spice up domestic power supplies and reduce reliance on coal. But now these facilities are increasingly being lined up to produce green energy to industrial neighbors to the north, through latest intercontinental submarine cables, or to locally manufacture “green” hydrogen for shipping to Europe, where demand is growing fast for low-carbon industrial fuels.

The largest megaproject goals to attach giant wind and solar farms within the Moroccan desert to southwest England.

Morocco, the North African country furthest advanced on this road, is already exporting solar energy to Europe via two existing power links with Spain. Last 12 months it signed a latest deal with the European Union to expand power exports. Egypt, host of essentially the most recent UN climate conference (COP27) is considering three proposals for cables to link to Greece. One other planned submarine cable that may link latest solar farms within the desert of southern Tunisia to Italy’s electricity grid has funding promised from the European Union (EU) and World Bank.

However the biggest megaproject goals to put the world’s longest high-voltage submarine cables for two,300 miles from giant energy farms within the Moroccan desert past the Atlantic coastlines of Portugal, Spain, and France to southwest England, from where it could provide 8 percent of the UK’s electricity. The fee of the proposed 10,500-megawatt Xlinks project is anticipated to be $22 billion, half for the solar and wind energy farms and half for the cables.

In January, Morocco’s ambassador to Britain, Hakim Hajoui, touted the project as capable of making “1000’s of jobs in each countries,” in addition to “enhancing local ecosystems” in Morocco and helping the U.K. reduce its reliance on burning imported natural gas to generate electricity. Xlinks executives say the cable could start delivering power as early as 2027 and be accomplished by 2030, though they complain that political turbulence in Britain previously 12 months has slowed sign-off for the federal government price subsidy required by potential investors.

The Noor I solar energy station near Ouarzazate, Morocco.
Abdeljalil Bounhar / AP Photo

North Africa’s sometimes autocratic governments have already shown themselves adept at delivering rapid construction of huge renewable-energy projects within the Sahara. Egypt’s 1,650-megawatt Benban solar park, near Aswan on the Nile River, was accomplished inside two years of receiving funding.

And Europe is keen to tap in. Last May, because the Ukraine conflict intensified, the European Commission, representing 27 EU members, launched REPowerEU, “a plan to rapidly reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels and fast forward the green transition.” It provides political and financial backing for cross-border investments to stimulate renewable energy imports from North Africa, and it is taken into account crucial to enabling the EU to attain its goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 55 percent by 2030.

But there are ethical concerns about Africa exporting a lot power. Most individuals in Morocco and Egypt have electricity, but lower than half the continent’s population is connected to reliable power grids. Laura El-Katiri, a visiting fellow on the European Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank, points out that Morocco has connections via a regional power pool that would send green electricity to most nations in West Africa, while Egypt is similarly linked to most of East Africa. But each countries’ electricity exports are currently earmarked for European markets as an alternative.

Critics also point to environmental and social concerns. Proponents of solar and wind farms in North Africa routinely describe the land they’re taking as distant, empty desert. But even the Sahara Desert isn’t deserted, especially the coastal areas favored to link up with submarine cables.

Plans for one project within the Sahara call for 12 million solar panels and 530 wind turbines on an area of greater than 650 square miles.

And the land being taken for projects large enough to deliver power economically down long cables is vast. A number of the planned renewable-energy hubs will cover tons of of square miles, consuming precious desert ecosystems and fencing off seasonal grasslands vital to pastoralists. These often militarized zones may even block villagers’ routes to nearby towns and devour scarce water resources.

Plans for the Xlinks project within the Moroccan Sahara call for 12 million solar panels and 530 giant wind turbines on an area of greater than 650 square miles. The Moroccan government has yet to announce where the project might be positioned, aside from that it’s going to be inside the Guelmim-Oued Noun administrative region within the far south of the country. But last fall, in a media interview, the president of that region, Mbarka Bouaida, mentioned three possible locations.

One is near Chbika, a small coastal resort near town of Tan-Tan, where the submarine cables from the U.K. will reach land. This isn’t empty desert. The realm is inhabited by Regeibat and Tekna nomads who traditionally range across wide areas of the Sahara looking for pastures for his or her sheep and camels.

And Tan-Tan is a town with long-standing Saharan cultural traditions based on the desert environment. Greater than 30 nomadic tribes gather there annually for the most important religious, cultural, and trade fair in North Africa. Famous for its music and camel racing, the gathering is recognized by UNESCO as a part of Africa’s cultural heritage. Nevertheless it could soon be hemmed in by energy plants.

Most controversially, the 2 other sites mentioned by Bouaida — Mahbes and Lemsid — are within the neighboring disputed territory of Western Sahara, which Morocco has claimed as its own for nearly half a century, in defiance of the UN, which doesn’t recognize the claim and lists Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory. Bouaida’s statement appears to contradict a past promise by Xlinks project manager Richard Hardy that not one of the sites from which it’s going to take power might be in “contested territories.”

The Moussem festival in Tan Tan, southern Morocco.

The Moussem festival in Tan Tan, southern Morocco.
Maxim Massalitin via Flickr

Xlinks didn’t responded to requests to make clear likely sites for the project. But with no environmental or social impact assessments of specific sites yet begun, critics fear any try and meet the corporate’s promise to be delivering power to “over 7 million British homes by 2030” could ride roughshod over ecosystems, communities, and useful pasturelands.

Clearly, mass expansion of renewable energy goes to have downsides. However the evidence for the way such competing interests are being handled in Morocco isn’t encouraging. Sociologist Zakia Salime of Rutgers University has explored the social impact of the present Noor solar energy station near Ouarzazate. It’s certainly one of the world’s largest concentrated solar energy plants. (As a substitute of photovoltaics, these plants use mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays to a central tower to heat a liquid that stores the energy.) Noor spreads across some 12 square miles of desert and requires greater than 2,000 acre-feet of scarce desert water every year.

The project, masterminded by the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy under the Moroccan king’s patronage, went to some pains to realize local acceptance, promising jobs, economic development, and infrastructure. But analysts say this aid turned out to be little greater than a number of small-scale farming projects for ladies and occasional construction work or jobs washing mirrors in the recent desert sun. Meanwhile, the broader area became a militarized installation with surveillance towers to guard the location.

These large projects are a part of an try and control regions which were the domain of tribal groups, a critic says.

Salime says “8,000 villagers lost their access to collective pastures,” in addition to sources of water, firewood, and traditional herbal medicines. There was “widespread disappointment” on the community advantages from the project, concluded Boris Schinke at Germanwatch, a Bonn-based nonprofit watchdog on environment and development issues.

Atman Aoui, president of the Moroccan Association for Mediation, an NGO, sees large renewable projects equivalent to the Noor solar park as a part of a wider try and take control of desert regions which have previously been the domain of tribal groups. The sheer scale of the projects is “difficult assumptions that a low-carbon energy transition is inherently progressive,” he says.

Noting the scheme’s use of huge amounts of water, he adds, “The irony that a project intended to mitigate climate change is simply worsening the results of climate change in certainly one of Morocco’s poorest and most water-stressed regions isn’t lost on residents.”

Still, the potential gains from tapping North Africa’s renewable energy resources are huge. The climate needs such megaprojects. And Morocco combines being certainly one of the sunniest countries on the planet, with almost equally high wind-power potential. The sharp temperature difference between the recent desert and a cool offshore current within the Atlantic Ocean generates persistent strong winds blowing onshore. By tapping these forces, Morocco plans to generate greater than half its electricity from renewable resources by 2030, and still have spare to sell to Europe.

The Benban Solar Park in Aswan, Egypt.

The Benban Solar Park in Aswan, Egypt.
Amr Nabil / AP Photo

Morocco isn’t alone. Tunisia is developing two schemes – the TuNur and Elmed projects — that aim to send power to Malta and Italy from solar complexes near the oasis town of Rjim Maatoug in southwest Tunisia. The realm to be annexed is wealthy in salt-tolerant desert shrubs equivalent to traganum and ephedra and is near the most important salt pan within the Sahara, the Chott el Jerid.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s military government has been busy constructing solar arrays. The Benban solar park, accomplished in 2019, is usually described as being deep within the Western Desert, which Wikipedia describes as largely “barren and uninhabited.” But actually the Benban park covers 14.4 square miles of land near a village of the identical name; is near the west bank of the Nile, downstream of the Aswan dam; and was occupied by settlers before they were removed by security forces.

Benban is soon to be joined by one other 200-megawatt solar park, partly funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and named after the neighboring ancient temple town of Kom Ombo. Each these developments could deliver solar energy to Greece and the European Union. In accordance with recent reports, there are three Egypt-Europe cable projects into account, taking different routes and with a capability of as much as 3,000 megawatts. One, the Greece-Africa Power Interconnector recently recruited U.S. engineering corporations.

Morocco is increasingly siting its wind and solar farms beyond its southern border within the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Meanwhile, besides exporting renewable electricity to power-hungry Europeans, each Egypt and Morocco are within the early stages of developing the manufacture of “green” hydrogen and ammonia, made with renewable power, for export to Europe. Egypt says it hopes to be the foremost source of green hydrogen for Europe by the tip of the last decade, producing 10 million tons a 12 months. Morocco’s National Hydrogen Commission plans to dedicate 6,000 megawatts of renewable energy capability to the duty, says El-Katiri.

As demand for renewable power grows, Morocco is increasingly siting its wind and solar farms beyond its southern border — in Western Sahara. Morocco unilaterally took over the territory, which is the scale of Colorado, in 1975, after Spanish colonists left. Western Sahara isn’t internationally recognized as a part of Morocco, and a war for liberation rumbles on intermittently, waged by Polisario guerillas based in Algeria, where many refugees live in camps. But those parts under secure Moroccan control are fast emerging as a hub for a spread of resources — from phosphates to fish — which are of accelerating value to Europe and the world.

Morocco has already installed three large wind farms and two solar farms in Western Sahara, all attached to the Moroccan grid. The biggest wind farm, comprising 56 giant turbines erected onshore by a Scottish company near the coastal fishing village of Aftissat, is now to be doubled in size to greater than 400 megawatts, following an agreement signed in 2021 by Morocco with a subsidiary of General Electric.

A wind turbine blade being hauled to a construction site near Laayoune in Western Sahara.

A wind turbine blade being hauled to a construction site near Laayoune in Western Sahara.
jbdodane via Flickr

Western Sahara Resource Watch, a Brussels-based NGO allied to the independence movement, estimates that by the tip of the last decade occupied Western Sahara might be supplying half of all Morocco’s wind energy and a 3rd of its solar energy, much of it headed for Europe.

Morocco insists that the territory is an element of Morocco. But critics say it’s using the lure of abundant green energy from the desert to steer European governments to renege on legal rulings, including by the European Court of Justice, the judicial branch of the EU, which say all investment there have to be with the consent of the local Sahwari people. They note that previously few months, each Spain and Germany, whose industrial giant Siemens provided a lot of the wind turbines currently operating in Western Sahara, have reportedly responded to pressure from Morocco by ending their diplomatic calls for a free Western Sahara.

“Morocco is routinely celebrated as a pioneer within the green energy transition,” says Joanna Allan of Northumbria University within the UK. But “the Moroccan regime uses energy to recruit allies for its colonial project.”

Politics aside, North Africa is increasingly seen because the golden prize for Europe’s twin desires to green its energy system and end its reliance on Russian gas. “North Africa is Europe’s most significant potential future trading partner in renewable energy,” says El-Katiri. That is sweet news for fighting climate change. And she or he says the brand new partnerships being developed across the Mediterranean open up the potential of collaboration on protecting biodiversity, in addition to generating green energy.

But there is no such thing as a getting away from the incontrovertible fact that tapping wind and solar energy requires land: a lot of it. And the environmental footprint within the Sahara of Europe’s demand for green power might be large.


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