Between the deposits of the road that leads to Rjim Maatoug, along the Algerian border and 120 kilometers from Kébili, in the south of Tunisia, only hydrocarbon tankers pass through in an incessant ballet. This area, where identical-looking towns are threaded together, bordered by a palm grove that stretches 25 kilometers, can only be accessed with the authorization of the Ministry of Defense. “Before this was a desert. We built this new oasis with the challenge of counteracting the advance of the dunes and with the aim of sedentarizing the nomadic communities”, explains a soldier present at the site.
In front of these palm groves, introduced at the end of the 1980s with the help of European funds —in particular those of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS)—, a gigantic solar plant built by the Tunisian company is expected to see the light of day. -British TuNur, as confirmed by the planning documents consulted by this newspaper. “Solar and wind energy are infinite, and Tunisia has an abundance of both,” says the entity on its new website. The objective of TuNur, which plans to produce 4.5 GWh of electricity to export to Italy, France and Malta, is to “supply low-cost electricity to two million European homes”, through a transmission line that will link Tunisia with Europe via Italy, and thus reduce European CO₂ emissions by five million tons per year.
Established in Tunisia since late 2011, TuNur has repeatedly announced the imminent construction of what will be the world’s largest new concentrated solar power (CSP) plant, but so far it has not emerged. Despite the fact that many industrialists consider the project to be “unreal” due to its very high cost, in August 2022, the company’s CEO announced that he was considering an initial investment of 1,500 million euros for the installation of the project.
For Ali Kanzari, TuNur’s main adviser in Tunisia and president of the Tunisian Photovoltaic Trade Union Chamber (CSPT), “trade with Europe is strategic and should not be limited to dates and olive oil.” In his opinion, what is lacking is, above all, “the political will”. “Tunisia is in the heart of the Mediterranean, we are able to meet Europe’s growing needs for green energy. And, even so, we continue to look at our desert without exploiting it, ”he reflects.
TuNur is a continuation of the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii). The project, widely criticized for its extractivist designs, intended to “revolutionize the world of energy with the greatest idea of the 21st century”: harnessing solar energy from the world’s largest desert, the Sahara. The industrialists hoped to deploy a network of concentrated solar thermal power plants in North Africa and the Middle East to cover more than 15% of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050, allowing European economies to grow “in balance with the environment”. . Due to internal disagreements and a lack of funding, the full project never came to fruition and was abandoned in 2012.
But the desire to support Europe’s energy transition with solar power from North Africa has remained, and is now being revived by the current global energy crisis linked to the war in Ukraine. On the threshold of a cold and dark winter, Europe seeks to break free of its energy chains by diversifying its sources of supply. For several months now, it has had its eyes on the resources of its neighbors to the south of the Mediterranean. Algeria, the leading African exporter of natural gas, is now Italy’s leading supplier, ahead of Russia, where it has transported almost 20 billion cubic meters of gas through the Transmed pipeline since early 2022.
As the price of a barrel of oil skyrockets , European countries are also seeking to accelerate their energy transition towards renewable energy, which is becoming less economically expensive. In June 2022, the EU announced that it would raise its targets to 40% by 2030. However, the old continent does not intend to produce all its green energy needs on its territory and is very interested in the solar potential of its North African neighbors. To date, several mega solar plant projects are being developed, with the intention of exporting electricity to Europe through submarine cables.
King Mohammed VI of Morocco is pushing for more CSP at Midelt following the successful operation of NOOR I,II,III
From North Africa to Europe
Tunisia is not the only North African country that plans an electrical interconnection with Europe. In recent months, various announcements for the construction of electrical interconnection cables between the two shores of the Mediterranean have multiplied.
In Morocco, the British company Xlinks has announced the construction of the world’s longest maritime cable network —3,800 km— by 2027, and the installation of a 10.5 GWh solar power plant to supply electricity to seven million British households, that is, 8% of the country’s electricity needs. Egypt, which aspires to be the energy center between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, has also begun construction of a maritime electrical interconnection line with Cyprus and Greece. Algeria toohas plans to supply clean electricity to Italy and beyond to Europe via a new submarine cable.
Despite the responsible and reassuring discourse of the companies, these megaprojects will not be exempt from a direct impact on the populations and their local resources. With only 3% of Tunisian electricity generated from renewables, and the country struggling to meet its climate targets amid a financial crisis, many foreign private investors covet its solar resources. And the massive export of solar energy implies the implementation of colossal projects.
Benjamin Schütze, international relations researcher at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and author of a report on the socio-economic impact of solar energy in the Middle East and North Africa, says: “I am very skeptical about the contribution of these projects to local level”. He also maintains that “this deterministic representation of the desert is a way of outsourcing the European energy transition and responsibilities in the face of the climate crisis. It is an easy solution, since Europe does not intend to change its consumption, but intends to build mega plants to provide green electricity, which is very problematic”.
Morocco, for its part, wants to become the Mediterranean platform for renewable energy. Thus, in February 2016, the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, Noor, was inaugurated in Ouarzazate, built with a strong impulse from the Moroccan monarchy. The country, whose electricity market was liberalized in the 1990s , thus becomes the country that produces the most electricity from renewable energies (19% in 2019) in the region.
In Ouarzazate, the sun’s rays are reflected in hundreds of luminous bands that extend over an area of 3,000 hectares at the foot of the High Atlas. Locals in the region are concerned, however, that the technology used to produce power (called CSP) requires a large amount of water. In a highly arid environment: according to the World Bank, Morocco suffers from “structural water stress”, and the Ouarzazate region is one of the driest in the country. In the Dades valley, which runs from Ouarzazate to the east of Tineghir and the Todra Gorges, Youssef, a farmer, describes an alarming situation: “Our valley is on the verge of collapse, all our water is directed towards the dam to cover the needs of the solar power plant. This project is catastrophic and there is no alternative”, he says, as he walks among the dry palm trees of an ancient oasis.
The TuNur project, nine times the size of Morocco’s, is planned in the southern region of Tunisia, where the oasis system has already been affected by droughts and poor water management. According to figures from the Nakhla association, which works with farmers in Douz (Kébili), the region currently uses 209% of its water resources. From what they say, TuNur promises to involve many local companies in the construction of the project — 60% according to Ali Kanzari. In his words, the company intends to create its own electricity grid, which would be managed by the Tunisian Electricity and Gas Company (STEG), which has a monopoly on electricity transmission in the country. The latter will thus receive royalties, which for this indebted entity is of great economic interest.
The company also promises to create more than 20,000 direct and indirect jobs in a region where the number of applicants to emigrate to Europe is growing. But in the case of these megaprojects, “most of these jobs are not sustainable, since most of them are only necessary for the construction and start-up phase of the projects”, underlines a recent report by the Observatory Tunisian Economy.
Ali Kanzari, TuNur’s chief adviser in Tunisia, laments: “We have a desert with which we do nothing.” For him and for many private and public players in the renewable energy sector, the desert is nothing more than a vast idle expanse, with little-exploited potential. Aymen Amayed, an agricultural policy researcher, disagrees. He analyzes: “This narrative about the ‘useless land of the desert’ is a direct legacy of French colonization, when the colonial power wanted to counter the opposition of the southern tribes by dispossessing them of their land.”