Green gases from sun and wind are a new opportunity for North Africa

By Jorgo Chatzimarkakis (Secretary General of Hydrogen Europe)

It was a matter of principle the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s first visit abroad was to liaise with the African Union. This is not a coincidence as there are plenty of issues of common interest that look for answers and solutions. An important, if not the most critical, is the question of how to create both value and jobs on the African continent to a growing population that already suffers from the effects of climate change.

The production of renewable energy is obviously a possible option that also allows the EU to import green energy that can contribute to reaching the respective national targets that have evolved from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Solar energy resources are abundant in North Africa. Professor Ad van Wijk, from the Technical University in Delft, is an expert on renewable energies and has calculated the potential of using sun and wind energy from the Maghreb. The Sahara Desert is the sunniest year-round area in the world. It is a large area at 9.4 million square km, or more than twice the size of the European Union, that receives between 3,600-4,000 hours of on average yearly sunshine.

This translates into solar insolation levels of 2,500-3,000 kWh per square meter, per year. A fraction (8-10%) of the Sahara Desert’s area could generate the globe’s entire energy demand. What this shows is that it is only a matter of managing this huge amount of renewable potential.

In his publications, van Wijk highlights that the Sahara Desert is also one of the windiest areas on the planet, especially on the west coast.  The average annual wind speeds at ground level exceed 5 m/s in most of the desert and reaches 8-9 m/s in the western coastal regions. Wind speeds increase with height above the ground, and the Sahara winds are quite steady throughout the year.

Egypt’s Zaafarana region is comparable to Morocco’s Atlantic coast, with high and steady wind speeds. In Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt certain land areas have wind speeds that are comparable to offshore conditions in the Mediterranean, Baltic Sea and some parts of the North Sea.

Solar and wind resources are more than sufficient given that North Africa and could easily be a main source for the whole world’s energy needs. To date, the Maghreb exports natural gas from Algeria and Libya, with several pipeline connections to Spain and Italy. These pipeline connections have a capacity of more than 60 GW. In addition, there are two electricity transport cables, each with a capacity of 0.7 GW, between Morocco and Spain.

Rabat and Madrid signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2019 to realise a third power interconnector of 0.7 GW, which will be used to export solar electricity from Morocco to Spain. The capacity of these electricity inter-connections, however, is much less than the capacity of the gas inter-connections.

For Africa and Europe, it would be therefore very interesting to unlock the renewable energy export potential in North Africa if the countries of the Maghreb convert this electricity into hydrogen and transport the energy via pipelines to Europe. Part of the natural gas grid could be converted to accommodate hydrogen. The construction of new hydrogen pipelines would be a cost-effective option, compared to the construction of electricity cables, to transport renewable energy to Europe.

The realisation of a large new 2,500 km, 66 GW capacity hydrogen pipeline from Egypt, via Greece to Italy, consisting of 2 pipelines, would require an investment of about €16.5 billion. With a load factor of 4,500 hours per year, an amount of 300 TWh or 7.6-million-ton hydrogen per year can be transported. The levelised cost for hydrogen transport by such a pipeline is calculated to be 0.005 €/kWh or 0.2 €/kg H2, which is a reasonable fraction of the total cost of delivered hydrogen.

These considerations might help to trigger a closer partnership between Europeans and their African neighbours, a development that could usher in the integration of the “African dimension” into the European Green Deal.

This would then free up bottlenecks that have already been created in Europe by not achieving a ramping up of the power grid, which hampers the ability to deliver more renewables into the energy system.

The First Executive Vice-President of the EU Commission and “Mr Green Deal”, Frans Timmermans, has said on many occasions that it’s one of his dreams to see the development of an energy partnership between Europe and Africa based on the enormous renewable potential. We should adapt all the instruments that we have at hand to make this dream a reality sooner rather than later.

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