This article is part of the special report The World in 2050.
Goodbye African oil and gas. Hello African wind and sunshine.
Europe currently gets a lot of its energy from across the Mediterranean. That might not change in a climate-neutral world.
Most of the fossil fuels extracted from under the sands of the Sahara are burned in the European Union. Pipelines carry gas to Europe from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya — ensnaring the two sides of the Mediterranean in a web of mutual dependency.
The EU’s plans for post-carbon economy is likely to lock that in.
The sun frying the Sahara — it’s the world’s sunniest area — and the steady high winds that blow across its sands make North Africa a good place to produce the green hydrogen needed for the bloc to slash its net emissions to zero by 2050, proponents say. Hydrogen will have to be used for everything from heavy transport to heavy industry like steel and cement.
“The conditions for hydrogen production in Africa are ideal,” German Development Minister Gerd Müller said last week after signing an agreement with Morocco to set up a pilot plant to produce clean hydrogen with the goal of mitigating 100,000 tons of CO2.
The announcement was part of a broader German hydrogen strategy that aims to invest €9 billion in boosting production of the clean fuel; €2 billion of that will be used for increasing foreign production, including in Morocco.
The German initiative is not the only big renewable energy investment linking Morocco and the EU.
The 580-megawatt Noor Ouarzazate plant in central Morocco is the world’s largest concentrated solar power facility — with vast arrays of mirrors concentrating the sun’s power to melt salt stored in a 243-meter tower at the center of the facility. It’s aimed largely at weaning the domestic market off energy imports, but was initially built with the help of Spanish companies and technology, with some of the $2.5 billion in financing coming from Europe.
Morocco is the only North African country with a power cable linking it to the European grid, but by 2025 Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are expected to be plugged in as well. Those power links are already creating tensions; Spain last year asked the Commission to tackle carbon leakage from Morocco, as coal-fired power from across the Strait of Gibraltar is undercutting Spanish producers because Morocco doesn’t have the EU’s Emissions Trading System.
That’s a sign of how quickly energy ties can become entangled in politics.
The EU’s relationship with North Africa is about a lot more than energy — it also includes economic ties, worries about controlling migration, relationships with large immigrant populations in Western Europe and political stability in the region.
The delicacy can be seen in everything from the EU’s inept efforts to settle the chaos in Libya to frictions within the EU on how to get Algeria to open its market to greater imports of European cars.
The scope of mutual dependence in a zero-emissions world will only grow.
Today, 13 percent of the natural gas and 10 percent of the oil consumed in Europe comes from North Africa, and 60 percent of the region’s oil exports and 80 percent of its gas exports are sent north across the sea, according to a study by the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), a foundation set up to explore the energy possibilities of deserts.
With abundant wind and sun, as well as lower labor costs, North Africa should be able to produce green hydrogen — made by using renewable energy to split water — more cheaply than most European rivals.
“Most North African countries have huge potential in terms of land and resources to produce green hydrogen from solar and wind for export,” the Dii study said; covering 8 percent of the Sahara with solar panels would be enough to supply all the energy needed by the whole planet.
Whether the fossil-rich area will see the benefits of focusing away from its primary exports is far from certain.
To ease the transition North Africa could initially produce so-called “blue hydrogen,” made by stripping natural gas and capturing the resulting CO2 emissions.
Financing such efforts in North Africa would have to be cheaper than projects based in sunny but stable parts of the EU like Spain and Greece. The region will also have to compete with hydrogen made from natural gas in countries like Russia, or exports of green hydrogen from other sunny countries like Chile.
“In the future global hydrogen economy, which I think will resemble today’s natural gas trade, there is an interesting role for Africa,” because it also has carbon storage potential in the form of depleted oil fields, said Norwegian scientist Nils Røkke, who chairs the European Energy Research Alliance and coordinates several large-scale carbon capture and storage projects.
If it works, the hydrogen could be shipped to Europe via existing pipelines, protecting the expensive infrastructure from obsolescence. The model also fits with a broader preoccupation from governments and companies trying to figure out how to shift pipelines from natural gas to greener fuels like biogas and hydrogen.
“The more we can have dual use of infrastructure, the better it is — also to make the transition to green hydrogen affordable in the future,” Commission Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans said earlier this month.
A hydrogen relationship
The optimistic view is that both sides will benefit from a hydrogen link.
“A joint European-North African renewable energy and hydrogen approach would create economic development, future-oriented jobs and social stability in North-African countries, potentially reducing the number of economic migrants from the region to Europe,” the Dii study found.
Creating a long-term green hydrogen industry would be “a geopolitical positive because it would give developing countries something to sell to us, which should be in the interest of Europe,” said Georg Zachmann, an energy expert with Bruegel, a Brussels think tank.
But the potential downside is that the EU becomes reliant on North Africa as a key producer of one of the bloc’s most vital fuels — with all the baggage that entails.
Political and economic instability has made securing financing and banking services a challenge for such projects in the past — not to mention the perennial risk of accusations of colonialism.
“Remember Desertec — it didn’t go anywhere,” said one industry official, referring to the 2009 German-led investor consortium hoping to build and connect Saharan wind and solar farms to Europe via high-voltage cables.
The project — which helped get the Noor Ourzazate plant in Morocco off the ground — had initially hoped to cover 20 percent of Europe’s needs by 2050 by building a string of similar plants in the region.
But by 2013 amid mounting criticism Desertec CEO Paul van Son backed down, acknowledged the out-of-Africa model amounts to “one-dimensional thinking,” and re-centered the project on helping North Africa meet domestic demand with clean energy.
And when Europe got out, China got in, nabbing contracts from the Moroccan government in 2018 to expand the initial 160 MW capacity plant to its current 580 MW.
“China stands ready and it already benefited from a decline of the political role of the EU,” said Federico Borsari, a researcher at the ISPI think tank in Milan.
That project is a warning for future renewable energy projects in North Africa, said Zachmann.
Even with EU partnership, African countries may prefer to first take care of their own energy needs with renewable installations, before having enough surplus to export in the form of hydrogen.
Kalina Oroschakoff and Giorgio Leali contributed reporting.