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Arab countries urge solar future

July 8, 2007, Vanya Wlaker-Leigh - Times of Malta

Arab energy ministers and some EU politicians attending a high-level conference in this desert oasis town flanked by the ruins of a vast Roman city, announced support for a revolutionary renewable energy electricity supply system proposed by Germany to link both areas.

The Damascus Declaration adopted here on June 24 by them as well as the several hundred participants (scientists, industrialists, civil servants) at the Fourth Middle East and North Africa Renewable Energy Conference (MENAREC4) advocated "large-scale renewable energy systems" which would permit solar electricity to the EU. All nations were invited to set national renewable energy targets, and donors were asked to massively increase related assistance.

With the German government as a leading sponsor, the conference - comprising 34 national delegations, 19 international organisations, 60 technical presentations and an exhibition - was entitled "The Way Forward for Renewable Energy development and Technology Transfer: EU-MENA Co-operation".

The Syrian Minister of Electricity, Dr Ahmed Khaled Al Ali, told The Sunday Times that he would transmit the declaration to the forthcoming Conference of Euro-Mediterranean Ministers of Energy expected early next year. (A Commission spokesman stated here that on-going discussions for this ministerial included a focus the need for a greater Euromed Partnership focus on renewable energies, energy efficiency and climate change).

Responding to a brief sketch of EUROMEDITI, Malta's regional technology initiative, Dr Al Ali (who had not heard of it) said that "such a centrally located platform could certainly play an important role in disseminating renewable energy technologies in the Mediterranean."

After the inaugural speech at the conference in Damascus on June 21 by Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Al-Otari, Germany's Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel stated that "continued world population growth and climate change are twin global challenges with huge energy implications. The EU Spring Council proved that there is political will to set targets for renewable energy use, but this must be backed by policy instruments which include phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels, as well as building cross-border links for electricity transmission."

While indicating that 'new thinking' was emerging, Mr Gabriel added that "we now need much less focus on new oil and gas pipelines. If the issue of renewable energies is not placed high on the agenda of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and other donor meetings it will not become an EU co-operation priority."

"A German Aerospace Centre study has shown that solar thermal power plants located in the Arab countries could make a significant contribution to future EU energy supplies. Single plants are already under construction in Morocco, Algeria and Egypt and planned for Libya and Jordan."

Entitled 'Trans-Mediterranean Interconnection for Concentrating Solar Power (Trans CSP)", the study advocates an integrated EU-MENA energy system which would ensure by 2050 that 80 per cent of the two regions' electricity supplies would be derived from renewable sources, the balance from fossil fuels but with no role for nuclear energy.

Arab CSP plants (comprising desert-based arrays of curved mirrors reflecting solar radiation on to either absorber tubes or towers) would supply national demand for power, heating and cooling while also exporting electricity to the EU via trans-Mediterranean High Voltage Direct Current transmission lines, to be connected to existing EU grids. Renewable energy produced in Europe - whether from CSP plants in the south as well as wind, geothermal, hydropower and biomass - would also be fed in to the new system.

Large-scale CSP-powered seawater desalination (Aqua CSP) could be associated with the new EU-MENA system; solar energy received on each square kilometre of desert land can be used to generate electricity to desalinate 165,000 cubic metres a day (or 60 million cubic metres a year). Rapid introduction of this technology could terminate unsustainable regional water resource use by 2030, the study finds.

Malta could perhaps be linked to the proposed connection bringing solar electricity produced in Libya to Italy, Dr Franz Trieb, co-ordinator of the Trans CSP study told The Sunday Times. Due to Malta's space constraints, another alternative to a ground-based field of mirrors could be the linear 'Fresnel' technology, with solar reflectors placed flat on large roof areas and focused on overhead absorber tubes.

Presentations during the conference from three regional offices of UN organisations indicated patchy and widely disparate patterns of renewable energy development in Arab nations, facing a host of policy and administrative barriers - including highly subsidised cheap electricity competing with renewable technologies as well as the lack of adequate fiscal incentives to consumers for their installation. Present flows of foreign technology and finance were also way below needs.

However, several speakers emphasised that the previous 'fear and distrust' of renewable energies on the part of oil producers had changed into a realisation that they were an essential component of their national energy supplies, as well as a global strategic option for both extending the life of oil reserves and reducing carbon dioxide emissions and thus combating climate change.

Two regional expert meetings paralleled the main conference. A capacity-building workshop was held under the on-going MED-ENEC project on energy efficiency in the construction sector managed by the German GTZ technical assistance organisation and financed by the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership's MEDA fund. The region's building stock is estimated to account for between 25 and 45 per cent of final energy consumption.

The second meeting was the 10th AGM of MEDENER - the network of the National Mediterranean Centres for Renewables and Energy Conservation - comprising five EU and seven south Mediterranean members. There is no Maltese member.

One of the half dozen NGOs in attendance, the Malta Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energies Association (MEEREA), was represented by a board member who was a guest of the Syrian government. ___________________________________________

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Updated: 2003/07/28