Renewing Algeria

Photo credit: raulsantosdelacamara (CC-BY-SA)

By Claudia Pollio

Chakib Khelil, at the time when he was still the Algerian Energy Minister, claimed that Algeria was in the race to see who would control renewable energy technologies. “We have the human and financial resources, and we have the will.” In this period of energy confusion, Algeria is working hard to get what it is missing to be competitive in the race.

After the secession of Southern Sudan from Sudan, Algeria became the biggest country in Africa, with a population of more than 35 million, in an area of around 2.4 million square kilometers. It is a country rich in resources, but the socio-political situation leaves one quarter of the population below poverty lines. The high number of unemployed people, in particular in the younger generation, has lead to the problem of mass emigration to Europe.

Besides ‘human and financial resources’ it has another resource. Algeria, the largest OPEC member country, has a huge portion of the Sahara within its borders. The idea to use the desert to generate solar and wind power, shows African resources in a different light.

The Algerian desert can be an eternal source of welfare. As Professor Bachir Bouchekima, member of the Scientific Committee of the Algerian Center for Renewable Energy (CDER), argues, “The average duration of sunshine exceeds 2000 hours on average per year, with more than 3000 hours of sunshine in the Sahara. The total energy received is estimated more than 500 times the annual electricity consumption of the country.”

The after-hydrocarbons in Algeria

Today Algeria is the third largest supplier of natural gas to Europe, after Russia and Norway. Some European countries, such as Italy, are dependent on this supply. On the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, Algeria is dependent too. The hydrocarbons sector is the backbone of the economy, accounting for more than 95 per cent of export earnings.

Algeria faces a decline in natural gas reserves. According to EIA, the Hassi R’Mel gas field accounts for a quarter of Algeria’s total dry gas production and it is estimated to have only 25 more years of production left. In this context, one of the priorities of the Algerian policymakers is to diversify the country’s economy, indeed the energy sector.

The debate around nuclear energy, stimulated after Fukushima disaster, is not new in Algeria. Youssef Yousfi, Minister of Energy and Mines and Mayoub Belhamel, CDER director, argued in the last months about the nuclear power option. “Algeria has no other choice but to start a long-term nuclear energy plan for electricity production”, claimed the Minister. “Algeria should focus on clean energy” replied Belhamel.

Hakim Darbouche, from The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies notes “Algeria has spoken about nuclear plants for 20 years if not more. It is not going to happen in the next years at least. Maybe after 2020.”

However, the country is seeking to diversify into renewable energy and decrease its reliance on fossil fuels. Algeria declared in February, its intention to invest 60 billions dollars in renewable energy projects in the next 20 years. The goal is to produce 12,000 megawatts by 2030, with the short term goal of 650 megawatts by 2015.

This production is not just for the European market, it is also to cover the growing domestic electricity consumption. “Electricity consumption should reach 16,500 to 20,000 MW per year by 2019, hence the idea now to produce electricity from renewable energy” argues Bouchekima.

This 20-years plan is divided into three short periods. The first one, three years, is devoted to the research. It aims to “identify technologies in renewable energy that are best adapted to climatic conditions in Algeria”.

The challenge is daunting

So, as the former Energy Minister Khelil declared years ago, Algeria has the human and financial resources, and the will to be in the race to control renewable energy technologies. And, it has the largest solar field in the world, with an estimated capacity of over 3000 hours of sunshine per year.

Ironically, what it is missing is the portfolio is an appropriate level of national technology and industrial development. It is not surprising then that one of the priorities of the Algerian policymakers is filling the technological gap with other countries.

Yousfi clarified that Algeria is not interested in joining international projects in renewable energy without some conditions. The important one is a technological partnership for the knowledge transfer. “We can not afford to develop renewable energy by importing technology and without having the ability to innovate and expand in this field” Yousfi declared last October. As Bouchekima summerizes: “The governments do not want that Algeria only serve as a basis for the installation of foreign equipment for renewable energy.”

For their proximity to Europe, South Mediterrannean countries, specifically Maghreb countries, are natural interlocutors for Europe in terms of business and cooperations. Relationships and interdependences exist between the two rives of the Mediterranean Sea on the hydrocarbons field.

Europe’s ambition is also, to create an EUMENA (Europe – Middle East – North Africa) green electricity market. From the European perspective Africa is an important partner in order to reach its ‘green’ targets. From the African side, Europe is seen as a market for the clean energy that might be produced.

While Morocco and Tunisia respond enthusiastically to the projects coming from EU, Algeria has reservations and poses conditions to join these projects. Darbouche underlines that “Algeria is in a slighly more comfortable position compared to other countries in the region, both in term of energy supply and revenues.”

In the last years, a lot was said about the participation of Algeria in the Desertec initiative, a pharaonic project that aims at producing up to 15 percent of Europe’s elecricity needs by 2050, with an investment of 400 billions euros. According to Darbouche, “Algerians did not respond publicly because the people promoting Desertec did not ask explicity”. But, the main reason for the delay is the priviliged position that the country could have in the negotiations compared to other countries from the region.

Can Algeria use this comfortable position to fill the technological gap between itself and European countries? Can Algeria exploit western countries’ technologies, through this kind of projects? At least, this is the goal that Algerian policymakers want to reach in order to be competitive in the race to control the green market.

Desertec and Algeria

The last 19th of May Minister Yousfi said, in a statement after a meeting with the Desertec CEO, Paul Von Son, that Algeria is defenetely interested in a long term partnership with companies involved in the project.

What is Desertec? Desertec is mainly an idea, a concept. The ‘dream’ of using the solar power in the desert is the backbone of the project. But, the Desertec Fondation, based in Germany, was created in 2003 to explore the potential of the Sahara desert. In 2009, twelve firms joined the Desertec Foundation in the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), in order to realize the dream of using the sun in the desert to produce energy. The motto of the Desertec is that “whitin six hours deserts receive more energy from the sun than the humankind consumes within a year”. The representative imagine is a red square in the Sahara desert that represents the size of the solar plant necessary to provide the world’s total electricity demand. Actually, the idea is to build a power grid across the Mediterranean and several plants in the Saharan desert. Two technologies are the fulcrum of the project: Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and High Voltage Direct Current power lines (HVDC). The latter is an option to deliver the energy generated in the desert with a loss of energy of 3% per 1000 km. The system that is currently in use in much of the world is High Voltage Alternative Current (HVAC) and it has bigger energy losses. CSP is a technology already in use in the world, but is not common. It mainly uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s direct rays to a receiver, which uses the energy to run a generator, which produces electricity. CSP differs from photovoltaic because it permits a production of electricity also during night.

The project aims to produce by 2050, 15 percent of Europe’ electricity needs and supply to MENA (Middle East – North Africa) countries consumption. 2050 is not a random deadline. The EU has the goal to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80 percent by 2050. In the short period there is the 20-20-20 targets. By 2020 EU aims to have 20 percent of renewable energy in its energy mix, incraese its energy efficiency by 20 percent and reduce greenohouse emissions by 20 percent compared to 1990. The Desertec project goes in that direction. Elena Ricci, researcher in FEEM, an institution devoted to the study of sustainable development, said “If Europe wants to decarbonize its production of electricity in the short term, Desertec is a feasible solution. The implementation of large plants can produce large amounts of electricity without greenhouse gas emissions.” However, according to Ricci “from a striclty economic point of view, in the long period it would seem that it is not worthy invest in this market now”. But Europe, in order to contribuite to the challange of climate change really needs this green energy soon. It does not matter that it is very expensive to start this kind of investment now.

Everything seems to be working. After the investments there will be more energy avialable. And this energy will be ‘clean’. But the issue is more complex. Why does some of this energy have to go to the European market? One of the main critic to the project is that it represents a continued expolitation of African reseources for the benfit of the West. A new form of colonialism, critics say. “What to do with solar power in the MENA region? – is the main question, said Dourbache. “Energy consuption and water consumption in the region is growing very fast, has been growing very fast in recent years, and it will continue to grow very fast.” Critics also underline how the energy could be used to resolve water security issues and domestic needs before being directed to Europe. Algerians and Africans need more energy, their fossil fuels are running out and they want to be competetive in the increasing green energy market. Darbouche points out that Algeria is trying to approach this renewable energy possibility, in a way, to avoid the same experience they had with the hydrocarbon industry. “In other words, developing renewable energy industry that does not aim to export electricity based on solar energy and import everything else from outside.”

One of the characteristics distinguishing developed, developing countries and underdeveloped countries is their tecnhological levels. This technology permits that countries use the resources that they have in their borders. The difference between countries that have natural resources and that do not have them, is that the latters have to import these resources. Tecnhology, an ‘artificial’ resource to exploit the natural ones, is nowadays even more profitable than the others. With the technological partnerships that Algeria hopes to obtain, it can become a bridge between Europe and Africa. It looks to be a mirage. But, who would have thought that the sun in the desert could have produced such a great wealth? Algerians did not. But, after decades of being black as the oil, gold might became gold again. Gold as the sand struck by the sun in the desert. And Algerians know that gold is the best bargaining chip.

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