With only 31% of sub-Saharan Africa's population able to access electricity, the lowest level in the world, energy is recognised as one of the greatest challenges facing the developing continent. In sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa excepted) 790 million people use as much electricity as just 19.5 million New Yorkers per year. Despite the progress of electrification, the absolute number of people lacking electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to increase due to population growth. This problem does not stem from a lack of natural resources. The continent is home to the biggest potential source of energy of the world: solar energy produced in the Sahara. According to the Desertec experts, the current world electricity consumption could be assured by covering 0.3% of the world's 40 million square kilometres of desert with solar plants.
Two main types of solar technology are currently being used to produce electricity from sun exposure. Photovoltaic systems use solar cells exposed to the sun to result in the direct production of electric current, while concentrated solar power technology ( CSP) uses reflectors to concentrate sunlight into a receiver which produces steam to power generators. It is this second type of solar technology, more efficient despite its variability, which is considered to be the future of renewable energy. Solar electricity produced in this way can be twinned with an additional source of energy, such as gas, and is easier to store.
As technology progresses and the stocks of oil, coal and gas diminish, partnerships are being created between Europe and North Saharan states. Building on existing private partnerships, historical diplomatic relations and new alliances such as the Union for the Mediterranean ( UfM), many solar projects are now being considered.
Recognising the incredible potential for emergy export in the Sahara, Germany came up with the Desertec initiative (Dii), quickly followed by the French Medgrid/Transgreen initiative. Organised as an institutional tool to foster and co-ordinate numerous local projects in the Maghreb, the Desertec initiative has been recently pushed up in the priority list as Germany announced the end of its nuclear sector by 2022.
Japan, long before its nuclear crisis, was already looking at a partnership with Algeria in the Sahara Solar Breeder Super Apollo Project. This global plan begins with the production of solar panels from desert sand. The resultant electricity would then be distributed locally and internationally, with consideration given to the training of local scientists and engineers.
Large-scale solar projects require massive initial investments and are consequently most often initiated by Western countries, which are increasingly sensitive to the necessity of appropriating what seems to be the future of the energy sector outside of their territories. Algeria, for example, seems to give no real priority to renewable energies: the Energy and Mining Ministry declared that "hydrocarbon will keep prevailing in the energy balance considering our reserves".
However, massive gas and oil reserves did not deter the USA and UAE from leading the way in the solar sector on their own territory. Aware of its own urgent needs, the African continent is not simply the coveted battlefield of Europe's solar dreams, and national and local projects are rising. South Africa is working on a 5000-megawatt solar plant project in the Kalahari Desert and local projects are slowly emerging in Maghreb. Morocco is currently implementing the first pilot project of the Mediterranean Solar Plan with the construction of a photovoltaic solar plant. In partnership with France, 5 megawatts of solar energy should be available for both local use and export by 2012.
Europe has large potential for the development of wind energy, and solar energy is already produced in southern parts of Spain and Italy. Nevertheless, with high aims of reducing energy dependence, lowering carbon emissions and dissociating energy prices from the fluctuations of oil prices, Europe has decided to embark on a "sun rush" outside of its own boundaries. According to the last IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report presented in May 2011, many estimates point to a minimum of 17% of renewable energy by 2050. Most experts agree on the feasibility of such an objective which would be based on a mix of aeolian, hydraulic, biomass fuel to name a few, but others remain more skeptical.
The CSP technology is already being implemented in similar large-scale desert projects such as the Shams central of the Masdar project in the UAE and has then passed experimental phases. Despite a less favourable economic context, the Saharan sites present the advantage of being distant enough from the coast to avoid occasional cloud cover which could lower the efficiency of solar plants. Other technical issues are nonetheless to be solved as it was stressed during the 2010 Solar Paces Conference that "blowing sands and sand damage to mirrors is going to be a major concern of operations in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region" and serious doubt was expressed concerning the durability of material produced locally.
If the technical feasibility of the initiative is hard to estimate from a non-specialist point of view, the sheer nature of the projects raises many questions. Presented as an opportunity for co-operation between Europe and the Maghreb, the plan appears to be predominantly aimed at exporting electricity from the Saharan plants, with very little left in energy, electrification, knowledge and control for the local population. With expertise, material and funding comingfrom European institutions and industrial companies, and most of the energy produced sent to Europe, it is hard not to see it as a transfer of resources. If the accusations of intervention are denied, the precise sovereignty of producing countries remains unclear. In addition to insufficient electrification, the energy demand of African countries is increasing rapidly and many observers see these projects as another plundering of Africa's resources, depriving it of a future source of development.
Will Europe's sustainability be achieved at the cost of Africa's? This assumption comes too early to have any clear answer but it is interesting to observe that the initiatives currently being considered involve only countries north of the Sahara, although the desert represents a large part of countries such as Mali, Mauritania, and Sudan. If we think first of the historical and diplomatic links between Maghreb and Europe as a major explanatory factor for this difference, it should be noted that geographical facttors also enter the equation. Indeed, according to a solar energy expert from Total, the CSP technology is not as easily applicable to the southern part of Sahara as it is in the Maghreb, since the site does not benefit from the same amount of direct sunshine and so would be less energy-efficient.
Europe's preference for Saharan projects seems to be justified by the exceptional suitability of the Sahara to solar technology compared with domestic sources. A risk of increased energy dependence does not weigh very strongly in the balance, since in 2007 the EU already imported more than 53% of its fuel and the major energy companies are Europe-based. The motives of European countries and industrial companies are obvious, but should not pert attention from the main question: who benefits from it locally?
From an economic development perspective, a large-scale electrification plan must be combined with the original production of solar energy if we can expect any positive local impact. Secondly, a real program of technology transfer should be planned in order to give these countries the necessary knowledge to build and run solar plants by themselves. Finally, matters of localisation of the plants, ownership of the plants and of the produced electricity should be clarified before any claims of cooperation can be made.
While they are branded as renewable energy industries, little has been said on the environmental impacts of such installations. Will concerns over land use be raised as is often the case when such projects are planned in Europe or USA? The Sahara desert is after all neither a unified territory nor a completely empty land.
Concerns over the security of the installation have been put back into the spotlight after the recent Arab revolutions and the consequent economic and political instabilities in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Observers have been debatingwhether these changes are a deterrent or representative of new opportunities. One certainty remains: solar projects are always capital-intensive with only long-term profitability, for example the 600 million dollars investmented in Shams. Furthermore, private investors are particularly sensitive to instabilities. However, professionals seem confident that institutions and initiatives such as the World Bank, the Mediterranean Solar Plan (MSP) or German Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Co-operation (TREC) are determined to push forward these projects and want to believe that political changes could announce better partnership.
Finally, a crucial element concerning energy strategies is the recent nuclear incident in Fukushima and its impact on the debate over renewable and safe energies in Europe. Nuclear energy is losing ground in European public opinion compared to "clean and safe" renewable energies, and supporters of solar initiatives are quick to claim their status as the energy sources of the near future. However, as renewable energy is more expensive than energy from traditional sources, a real shift of any country's energy policy, European or African, will probably arise from lower costs much more than any declaration of good intentions.