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Researchers demonstrate the feasibility of linking abundant solar energy sources into an international export grid.
Nations of the Middle East could readily transform themselves from the world’s major oil exporters to significant exporters of solar-generated energy, according to modelling by researchers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE1 .
This bold vision could reduce the region’s reliance on oil and gas, while providing a clean and sustainable alternative. The analysis also includes North Africa and reveals how countries in the region could be economically transformed by allowing the world to draw on their sunshine.
Researcher Muhammad Zubair at Majmaah University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, says, “I am convinced this is the future… where the whole world is connected with power lines just like internet lines today. In this way we can get the maximum benefit of solar and other renewable energy resources.”
Zubair and his colleague, Ahmed Bilal Awan at Ajman University in the UAE, demonstrated how the sunshine that so reliably bathes the MENA region could provide a significant portion of the estimated 40,000 terawatt hours of electrical energy the world will need by 2050.
Their model investigates the potential of a high voltage electricity transmission grid that would tap into solar energy generated in Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. They explore several energy routing options, which are all deemed feasible, but for logistical reasons suggest that energy from North Africa should mostly go to Europe while that from the remaining countries should largely be exported to South Asia. Significant exchange could also occur between the energy-generating nations in the grid. This exchange would smooth out variations in supply due to local conditions, including dust storms, cloud cover and different daylight hours.
The authors acknowledge that political issues among the proposed nations could complicate and interfere with the energy export process, but add that the resulting interdependency may help enhance political stability in the region.
Zubair says Saudi Arabia has already made many announcements of its plans and hopes to export solar generated electricity, but the authors’ analysis presents a much bolder plan for the entire MENA region.
Franz Trieb of the Institute of Engineering Thermodynamics at the German Aerospace Center acknowledges the potential of such a scheme to create viable economic zones in the desert, but cautions that previous approaches have met with some resistance, an issue he and his colleagues have explored in the past. Others have suggested that this previous resistance could have stemmed from the genesis of initiatives, such as one known as DESERTEC2 , being European, rather than local.
As COP26 proceeds in Glasgow, UK, emphasizing the need for alternatives to fossil fuels, it seems politics, economics and technology might soon align to make large-scale electricity export from MENA a reality. Some individual projects throughout the region are already demonstrating the concept’s feasibility. Morocco is already a net exporter of electricity to Europe through direct cable links to Spain3 .
The UK-based company, Xlinks, recently announced the Morocco-UK Power Project4 . This will combine a solar and wind power system in the Guelmim Oued Noun region of Morocco with energy-storage batteries. It should provide the UK with 2.6 gigawatts of energy for about 20 or more hours a day, accounting for around 8% of the UK’s electricity needs.
David Lewis, executive chair of Xlinks, says, “Xlinks is a Morocco/British first. Using proven technology, it will deliver clean power to over seven million British homes in this decade.” Work on making the 15,200 kilometres of high-voltage cable for the project will begin in 2024.
Further exports of solar electricity from North Africa to Europe will come from the TuNur project in Tunisia5 . This is linking a 2,250 megawatt solar power plant in the Sahara Desert to a base in central Italy, which will then be able to pass the power on to other European countries.
Saudi Arabia’s Green Initiative, an extension of its Vision 2030, emphasizes the need for the kingdom to transition away from its dependence on oil exports, with solar-generated energy a key priority. Zubair and his colleagues previously conducted a focused analysis of the potential for exporting solar energy from Saudi Arabia6 . They see Turkey, Pakistan and India as the most feasible export markets specifically for Saudi-generated electricity.
In its most recent Solar Outlook Report (2021), the Middle East Solar Industry Association (MESIA) highlighted the ever-growing solar energy successes in 11 countries (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and UAE)7 . Martine Mamlouk, MESIA secretary general, emphasised that “integration [of solar energy] into the grid is expected to become easier to manage in the coming years”. The report highlighted the increasing role likely to be played by using solar energy to generate hydrogen and ammonia. These are other ways in which solar energy from MENA is likely to be exported in future, as an addition to direct electricity transfer through international cable networks.
Zubair emphasizes the economic potential of these developments for the Middle East: “Even a small portion of EU energy utilization coming from the solar energy of the Middle East could provide thousands of jobs and a steady source of income.”