A decades-old dream to turn the sun-drenched Middle East and North Africa (Mena) into Europe's giant solar farm refuses to die, and now may finally become a reality.
In June, Tunisia-based TuNur filed a request in the North African country to export 4.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar energy to Europe, enough to power 5 million homes or 7 million electric cars. TuNur is a joint venture between UK-based solar specialist Nur Energie, and a group of Tunisian and Maltese energy investors.
"Today you have a market in need of low carbon dispatchable power, which has the mechanisms to import power from other countries," says Daniel Rich, the chief operating officer at TuNur. "Next door is a region with extreme solar resource and in need for investment and development. Finally, there are technologies that can satisfy the demand at very competitive pricing and have a very high local impact."
The project is moving at a fast clip; by 2020 it will link the TuNur solar plant in Tunisia with Malta, at a cost of around €1.6 billion. The Mediterranean island is already linked to the European mainland by an almost 100 kilometre of undersea power line that lands in Sicily, Italy. This leaves the first leg of around 500km, plus the overland extension requiring a connection, using an ultra-high voltage direct-current link.
A second cable system will link Tunisia to central Italy, with a shoring point north of Rome, a project that has been under development for several years. This link will form part of the EU's Project of Common Interest plan, which funds infrastructure developments that benefit the EU as a whole. A third cable, which will link Tunisia directly to the south of France, is currently under study.
TuNur is located in the area of Réjim Maâtoug in the Kébili Governorate, which is situated in the Sahara Desert in the south-western part of the country.
The idea to hook up North Africa to Europe is not new. Around a decade ago a similar plan was announced for a network of solar plants across countries at a cost €400bn. Under the banner of Desertec Initiative, it involved mostly German industrial investors as well as Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, among others.
Desertec provoked interest interest widespread attention when it was first proposed, but subsequently faded from view, with many news organisations reporting that it had collapsed amid political infighting.
However, announcements of Desertec's demise were premature, says Andreas Huber, the director of the initiative. Mr Huber says this is partly because of the widespread misunderstanding of its objective, which was to lay the ground for such a scheme in the region, rather than carry it out.
"There are no (Desertec) 'projects' as people generally understand that term," Mr Huber said. "We do high-level talking with decision-makers to open the markets to enable energy co-operations between desert-countries and non-desert countries and energy transport such as TuNur is aiming for."
In the meantime, TuNur continues apace. The project will stimulate over $5bn of investment into Tunisia, said Mr Rich. It also has the potential to generate more than 20,000 direct and indirect jobs specifically in the interior regions which are the most underdeveloped.
Crucial to the success of the project is cost, which has come down substantially for the chosen technology, concentrated solar power (CSP) – using parabolic mirrors to heat a tower containing molten salt that in turn heats water to generate steam to run a turbine.
In the TuNur Malta phase, the initial production costs for the project is €85 per megawatt hour, equivalent to 10.1 US cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), Mr Rich said. This is only slightly higher than the upcoming Dubai solar project , which attracted the world's lowest bid for CSP at 9.45 cents per kWh, which The National reported in June would be the world's cheapest.
He said the price would likely decrease much further for future phases given the significant price declines seen in recent CSP tenders around the world. "This makes CSP generation costs very competitive with other forms of high capacity factor technologies in Europe."
Transmission of electricity will be helped further as the EU plans to build missing cross-border links between member states. The target is that 10 per cent of each EU member country's power can be transported abroad by cable by 2020.
However, some of the problems that Desertec confronted still remain; fierce rivalry between North African states could complicate interconnecting them in a region-wide grid. Most plans now focus on a one-way line between individual countries to Europe, and not with each other.
Border disputes such as the one ongoing between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara intrude on all levels, including energy sharing. In addition, the instability of countries such as Libya does not help either – power projects need vast amounts of capital and investors are wary of investing billions of dollars that could vanish in the blink of a revolution.
Still, for supporters of the concept of turning Mena into a solar resource, the time is now.
"There is no question if there will be energy cooperation between Mena and Europe," says Desertec's Mr Huber. "The only question is, if we do that in five or 500 years, but I am sure in 500 years people will look back at us and ask themselves why we had to discuss this for so long."