Part of what makes TuNur feasible is the falling cost of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP).
One of the most interesting solar projects around, TuNur, hopes to generate two nuclear power plants’ worth of renewable electricity in the Tunisian desert, export it to Italy via a 1,000km high-voltage DC cable and connect it to European grids as far afield as the UK, where it could power over 2m homes.
Three developments are helping and could set a precedent for further projects: strides in the cost-effectiveness both of undersea transmission cables and solar power, the EU’s Energy Union and climate packages, and the new Tunisian government’s liberalisation of its energy laws.
In technological terms the project looks achievable. A €10bn joint venture between British solar developer Nur Energie and a group of Tunisian, Maltese and British investors including London-based Low Carbon, TuNur plans to use Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) – unlike solar photovoltaic panels (PV) – to generate a potential 2.5GW of electricity on 100km2 of desert in South West Tunisia by 2018.
Thousands of mirrors will concentrate sunlight onto a central tower to heat up molten salts, create steam and drive turbines. The cable to Italy is expected to lose only 3 per cent of its electricity along the way. An additional innovation is the storage capability, which enables reliable renewable energy generation by heating the molten salts during the day and releasing the heat by night.
Part of what makes TuNur feasible is the falling cost of CSP. As Jonathan Walters, a former World Bank director and adviser to the project points out: “CSP is made from common materials such as steel and glass. Costs fall very fast as scale increases, so it is not surprising that CSP costs are falling faster than PV costs, albeit from a greater height”. PV generation has seen its costs halve in five years, but the panels are harder to manufacture and require rare-earth metals.
TuNur will still require a feed-in-tariff to be financially successful. So it is hoping to secure a minimum price guarantee from the British government, but at a 20 per cent discount on those offered to offshore wind.
“The existing framework of the contract for difference scheme does not currently allow for imported solar power but given the competitive price and predictable production, TuNur has been in discussion with the UK Department For Energy and Climate Change (DECC) over the past year in order to try to change this and establish what an appropriate mechanism would be”, Daniel Rich, COO of Nur Energie, said.
“We are also considering other EU countries such as Germany, France and Switzerland…CSP with storage is attractive for nuclear replacement, and we are targeting the German market as a priority along with the UK,” he added.
The politics of asking individual member state governments to subsidise a solar project in the Tunisian desert remains complex, even for large projects like TuNur. And this emphasises the importance of the EU’s role in setting a clear framework, supporting strategic investment and maybe even acting as a central buyer of renewable energy.
The recent Energy Union communication states that “as part of a revitalised European energy and climate diplomacy, the EU will use all its foreign policy instruments to establish strategic energy partnerships with increasingly important producing and transit countries or regions”.
The current EU-Tunisia Action Plan commits the EU “to gradually integrate the Tunisian electricity network into the European market”.
On top of this, the European Parliament is calling for the EU to use some of its €90bn R&D budget (60 per cent of which is earmarked for sustainable development) on “research diplomacy” in its Southern and Eastern neighbourhood to further its strategic aims. One of these is a 27 per cent renewables deployment target across the whole EU by 2030, rather than apportioning member states with individual targets.
The final condition rests on the new Tunisian government’s ability to create the environment for long term investment. A new law to permit the export of electricity was passed last year, although there are still questions as to the exact role of the Tunisian parliament in overseeing new energy projects.
Riccardo Fabiani, Senior Analyst for MENA at Eurasia Group is upbeat, “there are still risks but they are lower than for the rest MENA. For the first time in a long time we have an Arab country aiming to introduce a series of transparency reforms that could transformits investment climate”.
Large scale solar exports from North Africa to Europe have been mooted for a long time. One of the lessons from the failure of the Desertec Industrial Initiative has been that foreign direct investment on energy export projects must help local economies. TuNur is keen to emphasise that it will bring “significant social, industrial, technical and economic benefits” to Tunisia. It is an exciting prospect.
Edward Robinson is a political analyst and director of Culmer Raphael