Let the sunshine in: Climate change and Mediterranean energy market integration

Jonathan Walters and Silvia Pariente-David, Energy consultants

With an accelerated use of renewable energy, there can be a low-carbon future and the Mediterranean is leading the charge. Many countries around the world are now aiming for 100 per cent renewables for their power system by 2050 or earlier. Some countries on the Northern shore of the Mediterranean have already transformed their energy system to a low carbon structure, with Spain becoming in 2014 the first country around the world to generate more electricity from wind than from any other source, Portugal generating nearly 50 per cent of its electricity from renewables and Italy having reached its EU renewable objective three years ahead of schedule. Several countries on the Southern Mediterranean shores are also embarking on the ‘energy transition’, with the large-scale development of their vast renewable energy potential to serve markets at home and abroad, with Morocco in the lead, commissioning the first phase of the Noor-Ouarzazate solar complex. And, during COP21 the Moroccan Minister of Energy, Abdelkader Amara, announced that the country was stepping-up the renewable target to 52 per cent of power generating capacity in 2030 (from 42 per cent in 2020).

Mediterranean energy market integration would facilitate the harmonious development and utilisation of the vast renewable energy potential of the South. To integrate high levels of renewable energy, power systems need flexibility to cope with the stress resulting from variable availability – a characteristic of renewable energy. Mediterranean integration would provide flexibility as markets could take advantage of geographically diverse renewable generation (making it unlikely that insufficient demand would occur simultaneously in every region). Moreover, the Southern shore has a clear comparative advantage over Europe – even Southern Europe – in producing solar energy. The sunshine is more intense, with fewer interruptions, and land is much more plentiful, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) deserts. If markets were better integrated, through stronger interconnections, then electricity would move freely between the North and the South, optimising the resources all around the Mediterranean, and reducing the cost of the transition to renewable energy. At the same event, Minister Amara advocated for more interconnections across the Mediterranean, diversifying from the only existing interconnection between Europe and the Southern shore through the Straits of Gibraltar. 

Renewable energy can reduce water use substantially and increase clean water supply in the Mediterranean. Energy production consumes significant amounts of water and providing water, in turn, consumes energy. Across their life cycle, some renewable energy technologies are less water intensive than conventional options. Water needs for solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind are negligible compared to conventional thermoelectric generation. Geothermal and concentrating solar power (CSP) have higher water needs. However, application of dry cooling systems in CSP plants can reduce the water use substantially, with only a modest increase in the capital cost. Energy is needed to extract, treat and transport water, and those needs are expected to grow rapidly as water scarcity necessitates the transport over longer distances of larger volumes of water. Renewable energy can meet the growing demand for water pumping and conveyance, desalination and heating, while ensuring the long-term reliability of water supply, without increasing the pressure on the climate. In MENA, one of the most water-scarce regions in the world, water needs will be met mostly through desalination by 2050 and renewable energy-based desalination technologies could play an increasing role.

The Mediterranean is the ideal place to showcase the joint water/energy solutions to the climate problem. The cross-sectoral issue of transforming the energy and water sectors for a climate friendly economic development has received scant attention so far. However, it is likely to be centre stage at COP22, which will take place in Morocco, a country that is taking the lead on the use of solar for addressing climate-related water and energy issues.