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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Solar Power and Geopolitics in the Mediterranean



The Mediterranean Solar Plan still is an idea in the heads of leaders and policy makers. But its ambitions are vast.

The idea is to build renewable energy hubs — based mostly on solar technologies — across North Africa to increase local energy security, provide millions of new jobs in countries like Egypt and Morocco and generate plentiful amounts of green electricity for export to Europe.

The project is part of an initiative formally presented by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in July 2008 for a so-called Union for the Mediterranean to bring the interests of European Union and North Africa closer together.

Underlining the geopolitical role that renewable power could play in the region, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union’s commissioner for external relations and the European Neighborhood Policy, said the project could foster economic stability in North Africa while helping Europe break its dependence on gas from Russia, which cut off supplies to Europe in January as part of a dispute with Ukraine.
Ms. Ferrero-Waldner, whose speech on Friday formed part of Sustainable Energy Week at European Union headquarters in Brussels, added that Germany already accounted for half of the solar capacity installed worldwide and that Europe could share its technology with North Africa to create a “green Mediterranean electricity market.”

Philippe Lorec, a senior energy and industry official in France, said the goal was to start dozens of projects creating up to 1 gigawatt of power in the region over the next two years and then to introduce another 19 gigawatts of power over the next 19 years. Mr. Lorec, who spoke at the same event as Ms. Ferrero-Waldner, underlined the need for technology transfers, training and adequate manufacturing sites.

Mr. Lorec also said he had recently visited Washington to meet with Obama administration officials on how to coordinate solar technologies and make the technology cost-competitive with fossil fuel power. Mr. Lorec said Europe could build on industrial clusters that already exist in some parts of North Africa, such as Cairo, and that a core group comprised of France, Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Germany and European Commission would lead the plan.

He said public and private investors — in particular sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East, investors in Norway and the European Investment Bank — already were showing interest partly because they were reassured there was a “political umbrella” over the plan.

But some speakers expressed concerns that the project could become bogged down by any failure by European and African nations to make on their Union for the Mediterranean, and if the project focuses too heavily on one particular technology like concentrating solar power, which is expensive.

“We could go ahead even without” the Union, said Roberto Vigotti of the Observatoire Méditerranéen de l’Energie, a research association based in France, referring to the solar plan.

Karim Asali, the head of Middle East and Africa market development for First Solar, a photovoltaic solar panel maker based in Tempe, Ariz., also underlined the readiness of the industry to make swift progress on turning North Africa into a major green-energy producer.

Mr. Asali, who said he was speaking on behalf of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association, which is based in Brussels, said that his company alone could produce enough modules over the course of this year to generate 1 gigawatt of electricity and that, technologically, there would be no obstacle to producing 20 gigawatts in North Africa by 2020.

By JAMES KANTER

source new york times

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