With bandannas protecting their faces from the blistering sun and blowing sand, day laborers smooth the ground over freshly buried cables at Libya’s newest electrical substation. Until a few years ago, this same patch of ochre earth in the sparsely populated Bir Osta Milad district, located on the outskirts of Tripoli, was the site of a Scud missile plant. Today, thanks to Libya’s oil revenues and its recent rapprochement with the West, the rocket parts are gone, replaced by gas-insulated switchgear, transformers, and state-of-the-art controls. This and more than a dozen other 400-kilovolt substations located throughout Libya will bolster that country’s beleaguered power grid. But these improvements are also part of a much larger drama. That’s because they will form a key bridge for an electrical superhighway that could soon bind the fractious nations on the south side of the Mediterranean Sea.
The coming electrical unification of North Africa will advance a grand scheme known as the Mediterranean Electricity Ring, which has been the stuff of speeches and studies for decades. Engineers have recently made much progress on the ground, and perhaps as soon as mid-2009 they will cinch together all the power systems from Morocco to Syria with those of Europe. The same momentum could see the entire MedRing finally completed by the end of the present decade, connecting more than half a billion people in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
The MedRing took its first big lurch toward reality in 1997, when Spain and Morocco energized a set of undersea power cables bridging the Strait of Gibraltar. That event brought the integrated grids of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—a legacy of French colonial rule—into synchronous operation with the Union for the Co-ordination of Transmission of Electricity (UCTE), whose 240 000 kilometers of high-voltage transmission lines connect 26 European countries.
Since that first Gibraltar link, 400-kV transmission lines and substations such as the one in Bir Osta Milad have been popping up along the Mediterranean’s sun-scorched southern flank. With this reinforcement of the region’s older 220â¿¿kV transmission grids, power generated in Europe could soon flow all the way to the Syrian-Turkish border, which lies more than 3000 km from Gibraltar. Energizing existing power lines that connect Turkey to Syria and to Bulgaria, a UCTE member, is all that remains to close the ring and realize the dream.
There are strong, if divergent, interests on both sides of the Mediterranean backing this project. To the south, the secure and efficient provision of electricity is seen as a key ingredient for economic growth, which is sorely needed. Unemployment, particularly among younger workers, is endemic throughout the region, and the resulting unrest plays to Islamist groups seeking to topple the area’s authoritarian and in many cases U.S.-supported governments. Ensuring stable electrical supplies, the local thinking goes, will help ensure stable societies.
European governments, for their part, see stability and harmony in North Africa as a safeguard against Islamist violence on their own streets. North Africa is also emerging as a critical source of diversification for Europe’s energy needs. Algeria and Libya provide Europeans with natural gas today and want to sell them gas-fired electricity tomorrow. A few decades from now, exports of North African wind and solar power may well be supplying a large fraction of Europe’s demand.
There is an additional, if intangible, benefit as well. Electrical integration helps tie together two worlds that seem at times to be racing apart—those of Muslim North Africa and an increasingly xenophobic Europe. The Mediterranean countries have tried, and to date failed, to create a free-trade zone integrating their economies. Electrical interconnection—with power plants in Libya keeping the lights on in Italy, for example—offers another way to link these divergent cultures.
Bruno Cova, a grid expert with Milan-based Centro Elettrotecnico Sperimentale Italiano, expresses that sentiment aptly: ”This is a positive consequence beyond mere energy interchange. You become, in some sense, part of the same family when you are this tight with your neighbor.”
No one believes more keenly in the interconnection’s potential for good than Fatima Mansouri, who directs network projects for the Casablanca-based Office National de l’Electricité (ONE), the state-owned utility that runs Morocco’s grid. She says there are times when they couldn’t cope without the power flowing across Gibraltar. ”Just two days ago we had a problem with two steam groups at Jorf—each one producing about 300 megawatts. Thanks to the interconnection, we covered the energy gap,” she says.
It’s no mean feat to keep power flowing in the face of consumption that rose between 7 and 9 percent for each of the past five years and shows no signs of abating. The country’s monarch, King Mohammed VI, has made it clear that he is counting on ONE to sustain Morocco’s economic growth.
The stakes are clear on the streets of Casablanca, a city of more than 3 million that fairly crackles with contrasts. At the Place des Nations Unies, the Hyatt Regency looks over the rundown Old Medina, and Paris fashions rub shoulders with the occasional burka. Although part of an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, this cosmopolitan hub is home to several thousand Jews, five of whom ran for parliament last year. Real power resides with the king, yet Islamist violence remains an ever-present danger.
Mass demonstrations at the other end of the continent show the least of the troubles that can occur when demand outraces supply. South Africa began suffering a shortage of power in January, requiring operators to ration electricity and up the price—a move that sparked a nationwide strike in August. The electricity shortfall seems likely to clip the growth of South Africa’s gross domestic product, from the 5 percent level delivered for the past five years to about 3.4 percent predicted for this year. Mansouri says that only the interconnection with Spain has kept Morocco a step ahead of similar shortages.
Indeed, last year ONE bought 3479 gigawatt-hours of electricity—15.4 percent of its total supply—on the European market. The value of that power is especially high in Africa, where difficulty raising capital, dependence on pricey foreign contractors, and widespread corruption all take a toll and in some cases add years to the process of power-plant construction. What’s more, Morocco has no natural-gas fields, so it depends on imported coal for domestic power generation.