April 13, 2023
The abundant sun of northern Africa may soon power Europe’s homes and businesses, as European leaders consider connecting massive North African solar projects to undersea power cables to free their continent from Russian energy.
The projects would take advantage of the climate quirk that one side of the Mediterranean is far drearier and cloudier than the other, although Europe and North Africa are geographically close. Abundant desert land also makes North African megaprojects far easier than in Europe, where open spaces tend to be agricultural or mountainous.
The sudden need for alternative energy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means that North African solar projects intended to send electricity to Europe are under active discussion, officials and experts say, as European leaders see a straightforward way to secure large amounts of green power. Past proposals have suggested that North African energy projects could meet as much as 15 percent of Europe’s electricity demand.
The interest is especially high in Morocco, where undersea electrical cables already cross the 10-mile span to Spain at the Strait of Gibraltar.
Moroccan leaders — who never had any fossil fuels to export — see a chance to promote their country as a renewable energy giant. Europe, meanwhile, wants to hit its ambitious climate goals and address its need for non-Russian energy at the same time. The result is a confluence of interests that could lead to a sudden leap forward for Europe’s renewable energy uptake. More broadly, it is a test for the concept of shipping green energy from sunny parts of the world to regions where the sun doesn’t shine as brightly.
“The question of energy security, or the question of energy sovereignty, is more than ever a major consideration. Reliability is key,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said late last year after signing a “green partnership” in which the European Union pledged investments in Moroccan energy projects.
Europe alone doesn’t have “the potential for the scale to create the dimensions of the renewable energy that we need,” said European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, speaking alongside Bourita.
World’s largest concentrated solar plant
Morocco is already home to a major solar power plant, with plans underway to build more. So European leaders see it as a natural partner.
“Europe is really in the midst of a deep soul-searching exercise in the energy sector. It’s a proper crisis,” said Laura El-Katiri, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in North African renewable energy. The split from Russian energy “is going to be the catalyst that will turn the tide towards cleaner energy more than all the climate negotiations and other things.”
Morocco in recent years has built a massive solar project in the desert near the city of Ouarzazate, installing mirrors stretching more than five miles that focus the sun’s rays on a central tower packed with tubes of molten salts that absorb heat and function as a massive battery. The reflected heat — a solar technique known as a concentrated solar plant — can help drive power generation for hours after the sun sets.
The concentrated solar plant, the world’s largest, looks a bit like a temple to renewable energy, with an ethereally bright, glowing beacon standing tall above the barren desert plain. The installation, which is visible from space, is estimated to be able to generate about 1,500 gigawatt hours annually, a little less than a third of the output of the smallest U.S. nuclear power plant.
Industry experts say there is little practical barrier to significantly expanding solar projects in Morocco, since there are wide expanses of land that aren’t being used by farmers and don’t have significant economic value. Undersea cables also aren’t technically difficult or prohibitively costly given the relatively short distances they need to travel underneath the Mediterranean, they say.