So far, renewable energies have accounted for only a tiny proportion of the power supply in Tunisia; the majority of electricity is generated by gas, while just five per cent is gained from wind and hydroelectric power. In order to increase the proportion of renewable energies and to make use of the sun’s potential in particular, in 2009 the Tunisian government drew up a solar plan (Plan Solaire Tunisia). This states that power plants with a capacity of 4.7 gigawatts (GW) based on renewable energies will be put into operation by 2030.
Against this background, the industrial initiative Dii has signed an agreement with STEG Énergies Renouvelables (STEG ER) – a subsidiary of the Tunisian state energy provider STEG – which concentrates on projects involving renewable energies in Tunisia. As part of this agreement, Dii compiled a feasibility study for solar and wind energy.
Completed in 2012, the study examines the technical and legal conditions which have to be met for local energy consumption and export to neighbouring countries, as well as the expansion of Tunisia’s electricity grid. The cooperation with STEG ER also includes identifying possible reference projects based on various technologies, such as photovoltaics (PV) and solarthermics (CSP), with a total volume of 1 GW. Laying a transmission line from Tunisia to Italy also plays a crucial role.
Tunisia is an attractive location for the development of renewable energies. Strong population growth and increasing demand from industry will cause Tunisian demand for electricity to rise by five to seven per cent per year until 2020.Tunisia is already reaching the limits of its capacity, and there were multiple power cuts last summer. Furthermore, the country remains strongly dependent on gas imports. Around 70 per cent of demand for gas can only be satisfied by buying in. But this trend is set to be reversed, as Tunisia is planning the installation of multiple combined gas and steam turbine power plants (CCGTs). Up to now, the country has been able to fall back on subsidised gas from Algeria, but this supply is expected to harmonise with world market prices, causing the price to rise.
Renewable energies are therefore a great opportunity to transfer Tunisia’s electricity mix to sustainable and locally available energy sources for the long term.
Exporting electricity to Italy offers further opportunities. This will provide Tunisia with additional income and allow Italy to draw on cheap Tunisian electricity, costing less than the Italian market price. Discussions are already under way regarding an undersea cable to Sicily. However, the Tunisian electricity grid would also have to be expanded, since the high voltage segment currently consists almost exclusively of 225 kV and 150 kV lines. Given the increasing demand and higher grid load, a 400 kV ring is planned, connecting the load centres on the coast with the existing north-west line. It will be possible to use existing lines (5 to Algeria and 2 to Libya) for expanding the grid to Algeria and Libya. The 400 kV line to Algeria is already available for use in the short term. Tunisia could also act as a transit country for the transportation of electricity from North Africa to Europe and thus play a key role in making the Desertec vision a reality.
In addition, a connection line with Italy could help to stabilise the Tunisian grid, which currently has a total capacity of 4 GW. An assessment by Dii showed that, given low-interest loans, green electricity from wind and photovoltaics would be marketable both for Tunisia and for export to Italy. Tunisia currently focuses on generating electricity with fossil fuels, as it does not yet have the experience of integrating large power plants based on renewable energies into the grid. In this context, Dii is putting its hopes in the German-Tunisian energy partnership and appropriate support for the first plants from the federal government.
With its solar plan, Tunisia has made a clear pledge to promote renewable energies. However, in order to open up the market for export activities on the part of private operators, the existing legislation needs to be adapted. The most suitable regulation for export projects up to now has been the “Independent Power Producer” option, in which a private, independent power plant operator produces and exports the electricity. A solution like this will require the approval of “Merchant” lines, which is not currently the case, regulations for the electricity allocation to the connection line to abroad, and transparent definition of possible through-line charges.
When it comes to the natural resources needed for projects involving green electricity, Tunisia has good conditions, especially in the north and south-west of the country.
Tunisia is an attractive location for photovoltaics in particular. PV technology is of particular interest to Tunisia, as it could make the installation of new gas-fired power plants to cover peak demand in summer unnecessary.
However, it requires favourable financing conditions and long-term purchase rates, as this is the only way it can compete with the subsidised conventional energies. The story is similar for wind power systems, although these are initially only competitive for the Tunisian market under the conditions stated: the transportation fees for the Mediterranean connection line would entail that the wind energy prices when exported are 20 k/MWh higher than the Italian electricity prices. The costs for gaining energy from CSP are higher than for the other two green electricity technologies, as the direct normal irradiance (DNI) in Tunisia does not provide top values and CSP requires higher investment. Combining it with gas could bring about greater profitability. Thanks to Tunisia’s excellent gas infrastructure and higher full load hours in CSP, this king of hybrid power plant could be very attractive. Furthermore, CSP can also provide electricity into the night using thermal storage.
As well as the profits it would generate directly, achieving these renewable energy goals would also help Tunisia from a socio-economic point of view. The reference projects identified by Dii alone, with a total capacity of 1 GW, would bring about annual savings of 520 million m3 of natural gas, corresponding to a net cash value of 1.9 billion for the initial year of 2015. In addition, avoiding burning gas in conventional power plants could reduce CO2 emissions by 1.2 million tonnes per year, thus providing 600,000 Tunisians with CO2-free electricity.
By implementing solar and wind projects quickly, Tunisia has a chance to be a pioneer in creating a market for renewable energies in the MENA region. This would significantly improve the country’s energy independence and its energy security.
A position as a generator, transit and export country for desert electricity would also help the North African republic to benefit from improved political contacts with European import countries and its African neighbours.
The author has been at Dii since 2010. She joined the company’s management board in 2012 and is responsible for the Dii strategy “DesertPower 2050”, reference projects, country activities in North Africa and the Middle East, regulatory issues and political work. Before this, she worked as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. Aglaia Wieland holds a doctorate in financing.