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Tunisian renewables market is hotting up, says CSP developer

The investment case for renewables in Tunisia has improved significantly in the year since the Arab Spring turned the region on its head, claims the developer behind one of North Africa’s largest concentrating solar power (CSP) projects.

Political uncertainties remain, and the prognosis for development varies hugely from country to country, but a sense of momentum has returned to the incipient Maghreb renewables sector, says Till Stenzel, chief operating officer of Nur Energie.

London-based Nur is developing solar projects around the Mediterranean basin, encompassing a variety of technologies, but its flagship is the 2GW TuNur power-tower plant under development in southern Tunisia.

The developer hopes to link TuNur to the Italian grid via new high-voltage cables spanning the Mediterranean by 2016.

Last week, TuNur received a shot in the arm when it was “endorsed” by the not-for-profit Desertec Foundation, which says it vouches for the economic, environmental and social benefits the project would bring to Tunisia.

“We were involved in negotiations in Tunisia before the Arab Spring, and we’re engaging now with the new administration [of interim President Moncef Marzouki],” Stenzel tells Recharge.

“In the short run, there’s a fair amount of uncertainty — [the National Constituent Assembly] is in the process of hammering out a constitution,” he says. “But on balance, we believe conditions for renewables are better than before the Arab Spring, and we think it’s reasonable to expect that we will be in a position to begin construction in 2014.”

Stenzel expects financial institutions such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank to play a lead role in funding the projects, with commercial banks joining in when the project gains momentum.

Nur Energie has partnered Tunisia’s Top Oilfield Services, which it believes will help smooth out the permitting process and ensure a high level of involvement from local industry.

“Tunisia already has a large industrial tissue of companies in light- and medium-sized industries, and our partner is very experienced in building large infrastructure projects in the desert,” says Stenzel, who heads the TuNur project.

Nur has provisionally chosen power-tower CSP technology over parabolic troughs because of its reduced water usage, and the larger opportunity for local job creation.

“Tower installations use many standard components with no patents,” says Stenzel. “The entire solar field can be created locally.”

Nur has not yet signed any contracts for TuNur, but refers to California’s BrightSource Energy as its “technology partner”.

Ennahda, which won the most seats in the Constituent Assembly, is seen as the most pragmatic of the region’s Islamist parties, and observers expect Tunisia to become a beacon of relatively liberal governance in the region.