In the Maghrib, hundreds of sunny days, but there is much to grow

Tunisia (AFP) – Dozens of solar panels are lined up on Lake Tunis: Tunisia, like the entire Maghreb, is trying to catch up on the exploitation of this rich resource in the region.

Experts say the explosion in hydrocarbon prices following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which has faced sluggish renewable energy development, has raised awareness.

“Extreme pressure on natural gas, especially in Europe, has changed the logic of this type of investment,” energy expert Professor Michael Tanchum told AFP.

However, “Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco have rich resources in solar and wind energy,” he points out.

Omar Bey, CEO of France-based renewable energy producer Gair, hopes the 200 kW floating power plant prototype, the first in the Middle East and North Africa region, will spur more ambitious projects.

He emphasizes that Tunisia, which has very limited hydrocarbon reserves, “has no choice but to bet on renewable energy.”

The advantage of a floating plant is to allow the panels to cool naturally, which makes them more efficient, while also reducing evaporation, which explains, without monopolizing farmland or construction sites.

Solar panels float on a reservoir in the northern Tunisian city of Kram, October 19, 2022. FETHI BELAID AFP

With thousands of hours of sunshine a year, Tunisia has the potential to produce for its own needs and export to Europe, a few hundred kilometers away.

However, today only 2.8% of electricity comes from renewable energy sources, with the goal of increasing this figure to 35% by 2030.

“Political Paralysis”

Professor Tanchum, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, attributes the delay to the “political paralysis” of dozens of successive governments since the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Ben Ali.

The country also has a large debt, which hampers the financing of major programs.

Wind turbines at El Alia near Bizerte, Tunisia on October 20, 2022
Wind turbines at El Alia near Bizerte, Tunisia on October 20, 2022 FETHI BELAID AFP

Not to mention the legal and administrative obstacles: import panels “sometimes remain blocked at the customs for a month, a month and a half. More flexible laws are needed, the whole process should be accelerated”, Ali Kanzari pleads. Solar companies.

Mr. Bey, in turn, creates a “misunderstanding” with the union members, who delay the connection of photovoltaic plants, fearing the privatization of the public group “Steg”.

A 10 MW plant built more than two years ago to supply 10,000 households in Tataouine (south) was commissioned only in October.

“Today, all these problems are behind us,” assures Mr. Bey.

A satellite image of the solar power plant released by Maxar Technology on May 20, 2021
Satellite image of the Nur solar power plant northwest of Ouarzazate, Morocco on May 20, 2021 by Maxar Technologie – Satellite Image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/AFP/Archive

However, for now, “only Morocco has emerged as a leader” in the region, Mr. Tanchum emphasizes. The Kingdom, which decided in 2009 to invest heavily in renewables to increase its energy mix to 52% by 2030, already produces a fifth of its electricity from this resource. According to the Ministry of Energy, a total of 111 projects are “completed or under development”.

One of the most advanced programs is X-links, which combines solar and wind power, capable of generating more than 10 gigawatts of energy and sending it through 3,800 kilometers of underwater cables to the UK to power 7 million homes there by 2030.

Tunisia has embarked on a more modest project: In October, it applied for European aid for a 200 km cable connecting it to Italy by 2027, an 800 million euro project.

“If the cable was already in place, with 4 or 5 gigawatts coming from solar power plants in the desert, we would be selling the electricity to Europe and already making a significant profit,” laments Mr. Kanzari.

Neighboring Algeria has set an ambitious goal of installing 15,000 MW of solar power by 2035, including a 1 GW (Solar 1000) megaproject to be commissioned in late 2023 or early 2035, recognizing the possible exhaustion of its reserves. 2024.

Solar panels in Bizerte, northern Tunisia, on October 20, 2022
Solar panels in Bizerte, northern Tunisia, on October 20, 2022 FETHI BELAID AFP

Currently, the country is only in its infancy with 3% of its electricity coming from solar energy.

Middle East Institute analyst Intissar Fakir notes that despite legislative concessions, “obstacles to foreign investment persist, including the notorious Algerian bureaucracy.”

In addition, he notes that even if gas exports bring in billions of dollars, Algeria will have to “focus them on modernizing aging infrastructure in hydrocarbons, not renewables.”

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