In the scramble to find energy, Europe is turning to North Africa for sustainable energy solutions. Solar and wind farms are popping up all over North Africa, but that presents some threats to the environment. The bright African sun can produce three times as much solar energy than in Europe, and the African continent has more space for solar farms. Why is it a problem?
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Europe’s energy crisis boosts a sustainable revolution
Europe is attempting to end energy dependence on Russia due to the war in Ukraine threatening supply lines of oil. This demand has resulted in a rush on the African continent to install large solar farms and lay underwater cables for energy transport. But is outsourcing energy production really sustainable at all?
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Desert ecosystems may appear barren, but they are home to numerous plants and animal species that can be displaced by large energy farms. Livestock pasture utilized by nomadic tribes for millennia are now being commandeered for energy production, with little regard for environmental impact. While solar and wind farms are highly sustainable in the energy they produce, they have to be planned with environmental impact in mind for the site where they are installed.
Morocco’s Noor and Egypt’s Benban solar farms are some of the largest in the world. Initially, their goal was to boost domestic power supplies and reduce reliance on dirty coal, but these facilities are now being tapped to supply energy for Europe via submarine cables. Or they will make hydrogen fuel for Europe, where demand is on the rise for clean low-carbon industrial fuels.
Morocco has already been in the business of exporting solar power to Europe through two projects that produce energy for Spain. And in 2022, the country signed a new deal with the EU to expand power exports.
Wind farms take significant permitting and local investment, and Morocco has a more developed power supply system at the moment. Egypt, meanwhile, is considering three different proposals for cables linking to Greece. Another submarine cable will link new solar farms in the deserts of Tunisia with Italy’s electric grid with planned funding from the EU and World Bank.
Is exporting clean energy internationally sustainable?
The biggest project planned for exporting energy to Europe involves the world’s longest high-voltage submarine cable. It will run for 2,300 miles from Morocco’s desert energy farms to the western coast of Europe, including Portugal, Spain, France and England, and it could provide 8% of the U.K.’s electricity under this new plan. The cost of this mega infrastructure project could run in excess of $22 billion for the farms and cables.
Xlinks executives working on the project say the first power from the Moroccan mega solar farm could start delivering power as soon as 2027. And it is true that North Africa’s governments are better set up for quick decision making on renewable energy projects: Egypt’s 1,650-mW Benban solar park on the Nile was finished within two years of being funded. That may be a lot faster than Europe can pull out of its economic and energy slump. Europe is counting on Africa to help it reach emissions cutting goals by 2030, so this may be a near-term solution that needs long-term fine tuning to be effective.
African energy is needed in Africa
To add to the complexity, Africa underserves its own population when it comes to reliable energy. Many populations in Africa still don’t have reliable power. And the energy production is on their land, which raises concerns about how the local environment will be impacted by projects, such as the 12 million solar panels and 530 wind turbines that will be installed on 650 square miles of the Sahara Desert. The most isolated place on Earth is suddenly looking very crowded, though these projects are projected to create thousands of local jobs and boost the local economy.
Other concerns about these solar and wind projects include the potential for these massive energy farms to take up hundreds of square miles of land previously used by nomadic tribes for grazing, consume space in delicate ecosystems vital to at-risk species and the existence of militarized zones in some areas that could block civilian access to roads and water resources. Add “contested territories” to the list of problems, and you can see how invasive sustainable energy plants can be.
The sustainable energy revolution drives forward
Still, the world needs sustainable clean energy, and it needs it now. Africa’s solar farms face challenges such as using scarce water. The Noor farm covers 12 square miles of desert and needs 2,000 acre-feet of water each year in the middle of a desert. It is likely solar in particular will continue to be located on equatorial land where the sun’s rays are most efficiently harvested. It is also likely we will see solar farms displace real farms as land becomes too hot and dry for farming at middle latitudes as climate change progresses.
The real problem is that tribal people’s have enough challenges adapting to modern economies, but the animal and plant species affected by climate change and energy farms can’t move or adapt as easily as humans. We could lose many species and micro-climates to environmental degradation if we can’t find a sustainable way to produce sustainable energy.
Solar farms that avoid displacing native people’s and impacting the environment should be given the fast-track through permitting to allow as many sustainable power plants to be created as possible. Some critics including Atman Aoui, president of the Moroccan Association for Mediation, an NGO, see large renewables projects like Noor solar park as a tool that is part of a broader attempt to control desert regions that were previously under the control of tribal groups.
Still, the benefits of tapping North Africa’s renewable energy resources are significant for the world that needs renewable energy now, and it’s possible that energy production tipping in favor of renewables will economically benefit areas of the world that were previously considered natural resource poor, such as sunny deserts.
Morocco plans to generate more than half of its own electricity from renewables by 2030, with extra to sell to Europe. It’s not a bad plan in the short term with some environmental and political oversight. Other countries are taking note and following suit. Tunisia is developing two solar projects called the TuNur and Elmed projects that will send power to Malta and Italy. Egypt’s government has been building solar plants like Benban, completed in 2019. Unfortunately the region chosen for this solar project led to security forces removing villagers who had lived on this land. The construction of solar farms will lead to serious geopolitical conflict if not handled legally and fairly.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is helping fund another 200-mW solar park near BenBan called Kom Ombo after the ancient temple town where it is located. These power farms could deliver significant power to Greece and the EU. Three other Egypt-Europe cable projects are being considered with a total capacity of 3,000 megawatts.
As the world transitions to renewable energy over the next decades, it’s critically important that governments not be allowed to conscript native land without essential need for the sake of the globe. More importantly, legal oversight hold countries accountable for using energy expansion plans as an excuse to promote colonialism or land grabs. But done right, Europe and Africa could create a partnership that lasts and even that saves the world.
Via Yale Environment
Lead image via Alamy Stock Photo