Solar PoweRING the Mediterranean

Areva's Bir Osta Milad substation in Libya copycreditpeterfairley2008Engineers working in the teeming cities and lonely deserts of North Africa are creating the last links in a power grid that will ring the Mediterranean Sea. Sharing electricity over this 'Mediterranean Ring' could secure Europe's power supply with clean renewable energy, accelerating North Africa's development and knitting together two worlds that seem to be racing apart â'' those of Muslim North Africa and an increasingly xenophobic Europe.

We make the case for all this unabashed optimism in Closing the Circuit - my feature in this month's print issue of Spectrum. Closing the Circuit is the product of two years of on-again, off-again research that came to fruition with on-site reporting in Libya and Morocco this summer.

The timing is fortuitious: North African countries - in many ways among the most progressive in the Muslim world - face a rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism, including increasingly deadly attacks by Al Qaeda-aligned militants. Economic development and democratization are the best hope for a North African renaissance. At the same time Europe's growing dependence on Russian oil and gas and desire to slash carbon emissions has intensified interest in North Africa's energy resources.

The scale of the potential exchange is immense: Analyses by the German government estimate that solar power generated in scorching North Africa could meet Germany's entire electricity demand. No wonder then that the Union for the Mediterranean launched by French president Nicolas Sarkozy this summer to spur cooperation between Europe and North Africa is fleshing out a â''Mediterranean solar planâ'' as one of its first actions.

The geopolitical and social import could be bigger still. Consider what Dominique Maillard, President of French grid operator Réseau de Transport de l'Electricité, said when asked last month what the Mediterranean Ring represents during an interview last month for the European Energy Review. Maillard began his response by noting that the electrical interconnections between the European countries got started in 1951 - well before the signing of the Treaty or Paris, which created a European coal and steel market, and before the Treaty of Rome in 1957. "At the dawn of Europe, energy - and even electrical energy - had therefore already preceded politics," says Maillard.

The implication by extension is clear: Electrical interconnection can be the forerunner for peaceful codevelopment among the countries of the Mediterranean, even including Israel. Call it informed optimism.

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