Closing the Circuit

Engineers 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

13 min read
Fatima Mansouri
Power to the People: From her desk in Casablanca, Fatima Mansouri oversees network projects for Office National de l’Electricité, Morocco’s electric-power utility, which is already connected to europe through undersea cables.
Photo: Ana Nance

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.

Photo of Casablanca.

Photo of Old MedinaBeautiful Friendships: Casablanca enjoys a juxtaposition of cultures, histories, and values, making it an appropriate hub for the integration of European and North African electrical grids. Although parts of the city might easily be mistaken for a modern European capital (top), Casablanca’s ancient roots are apparent in its walled Old Medina (bottom), built centuries before Morocco’s days as a French protectorate.Photos: Ana Nance

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.

Illustration of a map of Europe.Building Blocs: The electrical grids of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East form different synchronous blocs. Western North Africa is already tied to Europe’s Union for the Co-ordination of Transmission of Electricity (yellow). In 2009, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon (green) may join that bloc. Energizing existing linkages to Turkey (brown) would then close the Mediterranean Electricity Ring.

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.

The connection with Spain is important for power quality as well: the UCTE, with its vast reserves, acts as a bulwark against instability in the 50-hertz ac signal in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The UCTE has 630 gigawatts of installed capacity, more than enough to smooth over any glitches in the comparatively tiny amount of North African generation; Morocco, by contrast, can produce just 5.3 GW. Disruptions that would throw off the frequency of an isolated North African grid, whether from short-term mismatches between generation and demand or from a downed power line, are instead absorbed by the UCTE’s heft.

Mansouri’s office, on the north side of Casablanca, is the nerve center for expanding the flow across Gibraltar and for accommodating new power generation within Morocco using 400-kV transmission lines.

It’s a hectic job. Mansouri’s explanations are interrupted by frequent calls from engineers in the field. One reports rats—the usual suspects in many power outages—pouring out of one of Casablanca’s new substations. Another gives the latest news on a rural landowner who has been demanding several hundred thousand euros to let a 400-kV transmission line cross his property.

“He has a little house in the country. Our line is well to the side,” says a slightly exasperated Mansouri. “That line is going to kill me. Truly.”

But she perseveres, knowing what the benefits will be. Completion of the first phase of the 400-kV transmission network—1250 kilometers’ worth, snaking through northern Morocco—has already enabled ONE to get more power from Spain. A second cross-Gibraltar tie-line went in last year. Although these links are rated to carry a combined 1400 MW, the nation’s wobbly 220-kV grid could handle only 200 MW when the first set of undersea cables came into commercial use. But with the new 400-kV improvements, Mansouri expects soon to be importing 700 MW.

ONE has other big plans for the next five years, starting with the addition of 4800 MW in new power generation south of Casablanca. The utility calculates that tying that power into the national grid will require 1045 km of new 400-kV lines. Those and other upgrades will in turn further boost Morocco’s capacity to import power from Europe to 1200 MW—close to maxing out the existing undersea cables. It’s no surprise then that ONE’s director general is hoping to interest Spanish grid operator Red Eléctrica de España, of Madrid, in a third cross-strait link.

Photo of an electrical substation.  Scuds to Plowshares: A new 400-kilovolt substation, located in the sparsely populated Bir Osta Milad district on the outskirts of Tripoli, Libya, was built on the site of a former Scud missile factory.Photo: Peter Fairley

The 400-kV grid might even help relieve another major heartache for Morocco: its dysfunctional relationship with neighboring Algeria. Their 1559-km-long frontier slammed shut to people and goods in 1994 when disputes over the border and an independence movement in the Western Sahara boiled over. But all through the estrangement, electricity has continued to flow between Morocco and Algeria, preserving a channel of technical exchange and demonstrating the benefits of cooperation. Morocco’s 400-kV lines and similar infrastructure nearing completion in Algeria should multiply the value of their interconnection by increasing the amount of power they can exchange as much as sevenfold.

These and other grid upgrades in the region mean even more to the nations east of Tunisia that represent the next frontier for the MedRing: Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, which are already electrically interconnected—a bloc that, not surprisingly, bypasses Israel and the Palestinian territories. Three years ago, the power-transfer limits of the weak 220-kV lines then prevailing in the region torpedoed a first bid to hook this eastern bloc up to the emerging MedRing, heightening anxiety among the UCTE energy planners overseeing the project and raising the stakes for a soon-to-be-mounted second try.

The prospect of linking Libya to Europe electrically is a testament to the ongoing changes in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, as Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi renamed it upon seizing power in 1969. To end decades of isolation under his rule, in 2003 Libya renounced its nuclear-weapons program and offered a measure of financial compensation to the families of those killed in the terrorist bombings of Pan Am 103 and UTA 772. Now the government is working to secure its electrical supplies and to take on a growing role in regional energy markets—a response to years of pent-up demand in Libya, and indeed throughout North Africa, for a better quality of life.

Why is Libya expending such efforts to connect with its African and European neighbors? After all, this oil- and gas-rich nation has the cash to finance new power plants and the fuel to run them. It should have no trouble doubling its generation capacity within a decade to meet projected demand. But generating capacity isn’t enough, as Libyan leaders were reminded last April when a blackout knocked out power in the eastern half of the country, including its second-largest city, Benghazi, for more than four hours. Subsequent analysis zeroed in on the aging 220-kV lines connecting Libya’s population centers, which are dispersed along the Mediterranean coast.

Libya clearly needs a more robust and stable grid. It also wants to move up the value chain, by exporting electricity instead of gas. And above all, it yearns to end decades of isolation from the international community.

The impact of that history lingers. Libya’s social infrastructure, including hospitals, educational institutions, and transit systems, remains outdated and inadequate. The problems are obvious even to the casual traveler. The roads between Tripoli and its 1970s-era airport, for example, are run-down and lined with unfinished housing blocks—along with larger-than-life portraits of Qaddafi, the “Great Leader.”

Although he as much as anyone is responsible for the country’s sorry state, Qaddafi now perceives Libyans’ powerful yearning to make up for lost time. In March, he criticized his government for moving too slowly to translate Libya’s recent oil and gas windfalls into improvements in the average person’s quality of life, saying that the nation was “paralyzed by bureaucracy and corruption.” Unfortunately, his proposed solution—to privatize the ministries by the end of this year and redistribute oil wealth directly to the citizenry—threw government planning into disarray.

The ferment is evident in Faraj al-Ammari’s office at the electric-power ministry, the General Electric Company of Libya, where the phone seems to ring constantly. “For the past two years, I’ve been working from, maybe, 8:30 until 12 at night,” laments the mild-mannered engineer. Ammari is preparing his ministry for privatization while simultaneously overseeing a massive expansion of the Libyan power system. Peak demand has been increasing by about 7 percent a year, but that rate could soon double because of the electricity needed to run the massive pumps of Libya’s ambitious Great Man-Made River, a megaproject of wells and aqueducts designed to transport water from deep aquifers in the Sahara Desert to coastal population centers.

To meet this challenge, Ammari’s ministry commissioned a national center to control the country’s transmission grid; the ministry claims to have more than 5000 km of 400-kV lines, 25 new 400-kV substations, and 6000 MW of natural gas–fired generation under contract or construction. When that work is finished, power transfer across the grid’s weakest link—a key east-west connector that failed during the April blackout—will jump from a few hundred to 2000 MW. “We will be the strongest network south of the Mediterranean,” boasts Ammari.

A key test of North Africa’s upgraded power infrastructure will come in early 2009, when Libya is scheduled to try once again to connect with Tunisia. A first attempt in 2005 was cut short after just 7 minutes, when slight mismatches in North Africa’s ac frequency, compensated for by the might of the UCTE, caused larger-than-expected power flows in and out of the UCTE that overtaxed the North African lines. This time around those lines are beefier, and they are now regulated by smarter control systems.

Building Blocs: The electrical grids of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East form different synchronous blocs. Western North Africa is already tied to Europe’s Union for the Co-ordination of Transmission of Electricity [yellow]. In 2009, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon [green] may join that bloc. Energizing existing linkages to Turkey [brown] would then close the Mediterranean Electricity Ring.

If everything works as planned, the trial will run for four days, at which point engineers will shut down the linkage to study how well it functioned. Barring any surprises, they will reconnect and go on. And if they fail again? Then they will have to turn to high-voltage direct current (HVDC) interconnections, which is how the eastern, western, and Texas grids are linked together in the United States, for example. HVDC transmission systems move power by converting ac into dc at one end of the line and then converting this dc back to ac on the other side. Two ac grids tied together in this way do not need to be synchronized and can even run at different frequencies.

The downside of HVDC is that it requires solid-state converters, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The upside, besides immunity to instabilities, is increased power transfer. Electricity travels over ac networks following the path of least resistance, so managers of ac grids must leave a large margin of safety on their lines to accommodate unexpected shifts. In contrast, HVDC’s power electronics precisely control the electricity flow, so HVDC connections can operate closer to the physical limit that their cables can bear.

For the time being, North Africa’s power-grid engineers are more focused on the relatively economical frequency stabilization that ac offers. There is also an important additional benefit to ac that technical studies don’t capture: the symbolism of synchronization. “The operation of this large power network is a symbol of unity, of cooperation,” says Brahim Oumounah, ONE’s director of network engineering. “I believe that the engineers involved, be they from North Africa or the UCTE, will exhaust all the technical means for ac.”

Though the emphasis remains on ac today, dc interfaces may be the only way to close the MedRing. That’s because transmission rings on the edge of large power grids are susceptible to loop flows that are hard to manage. Just as system operators in the United States and Canada sometimes struggle with unscheduled power flows looping around the Great Lakes of North America, North African system operators could find their lines overwhelmed when large power exchanges between European countries unexpectedly take a southern route.

Juan Manuel Rodriguez Garcia, international liaison for Spanish grid operator Red Eléctrica de España, is coordinating the UCTE’s preparations for the next test connection between the eastern and western sides of North Africa. He believes that one or more dc interfaces will be needed along the southern loop to block such rogue currents. “The operation of a ring like that is a challenge,” says Rodriguez Garcia. “I’m convinced that we’ll have to introduce some dc interfaces.”

Major dc connections are also the only way to accommodate the multigigawatt ambitions of North Africa’s power producers, who can tap the kind of energy Europe most desires: clean-burning natural gas and world-class wind and solar resources. Astonishing as it may seem, some entrepreneurs, engineers, and system planners are confident that the development of such clean energy will reverse today’s net north-to-south flow of power in as little as five years.

The most solid plans are for undersea HVDC lines to deliver power across the Mediterranean to Europe from natural gas–rich Algeria and Libya. Feasibility studies have already been completed for three proposed subsea lines to Italy, which depends on oil-fired power generation and as a result pays Europe’s highest electricity prices.

How much power could be sent north through one of these proposed links? Ammari expects Libya to have no less than 2000 MW of spare capacity available by 2012, when the natural-gas power plants now in the works are due to be fired up.

North Africa’s blistering sunlight and incessant winds will ultimately provide an even brighter export opportunity: renewable energy. Consider Morocco’s wind resources, conservatively estimated at 6000 MW. The wind blows faster and more frequently at many Moroccan sites than it does in Europe, offering operators more megawatt-hours from every megawatt of installed turbine capacity. And this energy would not be subject to the price volatility that afflicts natural gas—a major challenge for wouldâ¿¿be exporters of natural gas–fired power.

Mohamed Habbal, the politically savvy Casablanca native who directs developing markets for French wind-power developer Theolia, bets that Morocco could generate enough wind power to fulfill all its needs for the foreseeable future. But Habbal says exporting that energy over the Gibraltar interconnect is a much better idea. He reasons that European utilities facing mounting requirements to use renewable energy—especially those in Italy, which has little indigenous renewable generation—will pay dearly for Moroccan wind power. “They will surely pay a higher price than for conventional energy,” says Habbal. They might also accept a swap: “We could receive 2 MWh of conventional energy for every megawatt-hour of green energy supplied.”

The sunlight that bakes North Africa may seem like a more distant opportunity, given the higher cost of solar power today. But it, too, is attracting attention. The Union for the Mediterranean, French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s recently launched effort to spur cooperation between Europe and North Africa, identified the creation of a “Mediterranean solar plan” as one of its first priorities. And some work of this kind is being done right now. European renewable-energy developers are building large power plants in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco with solar-thermal technology that uses sunlight to produce steam. Algeria’s renewable-energy authority is proposing a 3000-km-long HVDC line intended to deliver solar power from the Algerian Sahara to Germany.

The potential scale of these exports is awesome. According to analyses by the German government, HVDC lines from North Africa could carry 700 000 GWh per year of solar electricity by 2050—considerably more than Germany should need at that point. In the process, they would help boost renewably sourced power to 80 percent of Europe’s electricity consumption. And get this: in this scenario the price Europeans pay for each kilowatt-hour actually drops as improvements in technology drive down the cost of solar power.

Europe’s needs would be met using clean electricity generated by—and for the development of—their Muslim neighbors to the south. Klaus Töpfer, former executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, has called it a “new development paradigm” for both Africa and Europe.

That may sound optimistic, but you’ve got to admit it’s a beautiful vision.

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