If Europe decides to turn away from nuclear and other sources of energy, as current trends tend to indicate, where will the continent look to power its future? Some say: Tunisia.
As nuclear scientists continued to give dire reports over the state of the damaged Fukushima power plant this past year, European public opinion became ever more negative about nuclear energy. Politicians across the continent have been quick to perceive these shifting attitudes. Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition declared that Germany would close all nuclear reactors by 2022. Even in France, the world's most nuclear-dependent country, Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande has floated the idea of slashing France's nuclear consumption by more than a third by 2025. As Europe scrambles to find alternative sources of energy, it is searching in the deserts south of the Mediterranean.
Tunisia is poised to play its part in Europe's shift in energy consumption. The North African country is endowed with a reliable source of solar power in its southern Saharan region with 20% stronger radiation than even the best locations in Europe. Because of its proximity to Italy, Tunisia is well placed to transfer such renewable energy directly to European markets, with much less energy loss along the way compared to its Maghreb neighbors.
TuNur, a joint-venture company between NurEnergie, a solar power plant developer based in England, and a collection of Tunisian investors, has seized upon the unmet export market of solar energy from Tunisia to Europe. It establishes the first solar export scheme between Tunisia and Europe.
Around 825,000 flat plate mirrors, known as heliostats, as well as a 2-gigawatt solar power plant will harness the energy of the Saharan sun to generate electricity. Such electricity will then be transferred by high-voltage direct-current submarine power cables to Italy from where it will be sold elsewhere in Europe. TuNur expects to conduct its first electricity exports, powering 700,000 European households, by 2016.
Europeans, nevertheless, are not the sole targeted consumers for TuNur, explained Kevin Sara, founder and CEO of NurEnergie. "The idea of exporting to Europe is to take advantage of the fact that Europeans are willing to pay a higher price for renewable electricity today. And with this high price, we're able to invest in new technologies and in factories to build solar production equipment in Tunisia. Once we have this industrial capacity, we can build solar energy plants for Tunisian consumption," said Sara.
According to Sara, the potential gain for the Tunisian economy could be long-lasting. In the short term, TuNur will benefit most directly the local economy of the south. Estimates done by DESERTEC, a global sustainability non-profit, hold that some 20,000 new jobs will be created over the course of the construction and operation of the TuNur project. Perhaps more importantly, in the long run the initiative could foster new manufacturing industries in Tunisia specializing in clean energy technology.
Sara stated that TuNur "creates a sustainable industry in Tunisia where Tunisian firms can build solar energy power plants for Tunisian consumption."
Hurdles still remain ahead before TuNur begins exporting solar energy to Europe. "The biggest challenge is to clarify the regulatory environment because it's not clear to what extent we can export the power, what is the export regime, and these are questions which [TuNur has] brought up with the government," said Sara. "[TuNur needs] to come up with solutions that work for the company and the financiers, who will come and provide the capital."
Other experts in the field believe that renewable energy could be a major sector of the Tunisian economy, but highlight the necessity of adequately training the next generation of Tunisian professionals.
"It's important to educate the young people, students, in the renewable energy sector... so that they are able to run plants, develop plants, and work in the field," said Dr. Thiemo Gropp, director of DESERTEC.
Khaled Kaddour, the general director of energy in Tunisia's Ministry of Industry and Technology, echoed Gropp's belief in the importance of specialized education and job training for the industry.
"There are already schools of engineering in Monastir and even in the capital at the National School of Engineers of Tunis (ENIT), and they are becoming more adept at training students in the [renewable energy] field," commented Kaddour. "Tunisia has no problem in terms of skills. It just needs to recycle the workforce and catch up with the technology that has come out these last three years."