Desert power for EU dream lives on with 4.5GW Tunisia plan

Plans for vast solar deployment in North Africa exporting clean power to Europe – an ambition as old as the solar industry but so far nothing more – inched forward with an application to the Tunisian government for a 4.5GW project.

A consortium developing the TuNur project hopes to site huge arrays of concentrating solar power (CSP) generation with molten-salt storage in the Sahara desert in southwest Tunisia, exporting the electricity generated to Europe via future undersea transmission links to Malta – the target of a €1.6bn ($1.9bn), 250MW initial phase – Italy and France.

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The TuNur consortium is led by Nur Energie, a London-based solar developer whose backers include Low Carbon, a UK renewables investment group.

TuNur CEO Kevin Sara claimed: “The site in the Sahara receives twice as much solar energy compared to sites in central Europe, thus for the same investment, we can produce twice as much electricity.

“In a subsidy-free world, we will always be a low-cost producer even when transmission costs are factored in.”

The company’s filing to the Tunisian government includes plans for local industrial benefits in a country currently attempting to kick-start a domestic renewables programme that also makes provision for exports.

But TuNur – which has been beating the drum for large-scale CSP in Tunisia for years – will need to address perennial questions over security, regional stability and the cost of large-scale CSP deployment against a background of ever-cheaper PV and wind generation.

Desertec – the highest-profile attempt to site large-scale solar production in North Africa for export to help the EU meet its clean-energy ambitions – attracted big-name backers such as Siemens, E.ON and Bosch, before fizzling out in 2013.

But last year’s opening of the 160MW Noor 1 plant in Morocco was hailed by CSP’s backers as evidence that the technology can have a viable role in the world’s sunniest desert regions.

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