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Tunisia - A Possible Electrical Savior of Southern Europe?

Europe, battered by a perfect storm of recession and rising energy requirements, is looking for additional electrical power reserves anywhere it can.

Surcease may come from North Africa, and the leading potential state to supply that need might be… Tunisia.

Tunisia is endowed with a reliable source of solar power in its southern Saharan region, where the sunshine generates 20 percent stronger solar radiation than even the best locations in Europe. Given its proximity to Italy, Tunisia is in an ideal position to transfer such renewable energy directly to European markets, with much less energy loss along the way compared to its Maghreb neighbors. Last year’s Arab Spring has significantly improved investor interest in Tunisia.

All that’s lacking are investment dollars.

Enter UK-based Nur Energie.

According to Nur Energie CEO Till Stenzel, the company’s flagship project is the two-gigawatt TuNur power-tower plant currently under development in southern Tunisia, which the company hopes to link to the Italian grid via new undersea high-voltage cables spanning the Mediterranean by 2016.

It’s not small – TuNur’s two gigawatts output, generated by roughly 825,000 heliostat flat plate mirrors, will generate electricity at six times the output of the world’s current largest solar power project. The project’s first phase will begin in 2014 and the first electricity exports are scheduled to be sent to Europe by 2016 via a new low-loss transmission line to Italy.

The project dovetails nicely into the larger Desertec proposal, the largest solar power project ever conceived, a $500 billion  scheme to provide a significant portion of the electricity needs of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regional participating countries and up to 15 per cent of Europe's electricity needs by 2050 via a network of concentrating solar power (CSP) stations across MENA, connected to each other through a high-voltage direct current transmission grid relaying electricity to the European Grid via Mediterranean undersea cables.

Environmental concerns?

A week ago the project received the blessing of “the not-for-profit” Desertec Foundation, which confirmed the economic, environmental and social benefits the installation would bring to Tunisia.

Stenzel subsequently told reporters, “We were involved in negotiations in Tunisia before the Arab Spring, and we’re engaging now with the new administration (of interim President Moncef Marzouk).” Adding a note of caution Stenzel continued, In the short run, there’s a fair amount of uncertainty – (the Parliament) is in the process of hammering out a constitution. 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.”

Nur Energie managing director Kevin Sara added, "TuNur is going to be the blueprint for things to come. It is a pioneering project that other governments, companies and individuals can point to and say, ‘Solar energy export from North Africa to Europe is possible, it’s worthwhile and the DESERTEC vision is attainable.’ We are used to transporting exhaustible fuels like oil and gas thousands of kilometers and then burning them close to our cities with all the associated pollution problems and other risks to humans and our environment. Now, with the TuNur project, we are turning away from these polluting fuels to transmit clean and inexhaustible energy from the heart of the desert to European homes whilst, at the same time, bringing jobs, economic development, and export revenue to Tunisia."

Where will the investment for the project come from? Stenzel hopes that the obvious viability and potential benefit of the project will international financial institutions including the World Bank and the African Development Bank to undertake an initial role in setting up the project, after which with commercial banks could join in when the project’s viability is established.

In a world of soaring oil prices and Fukushima aftereffects, the world could do worse than to look to one of the few Arab Magreb southern Mediterranean nations to have escaped the harsh winds of the Arab spring.

After all, unlike “peak” oil, sunshine is forever as has a benign environmental footprint but, if not, well – then all the gnomes of Zurich and Brussels Eurocrats won’t be able to avoid turning down the lights.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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