The spark of renewables in the MENA region has increased the need for new interconnectors. Big projects with high capacities are being planned across borders to raise electricity exchanges across the region, reviving the dream of a MENA integrated electricity grid.
From pv magazine 01/2022
Two decades ago, electricity companies of the Mediterranean Basin planned, and failed to deliver, a gigantic project called the “MedRing.” The project, initiated in 2010, consisted of connecting 22 electricity networks between countries around the Mediterranean, from Morocco via Spain, crossing thousands of kilometers to North Africa and the Middle East, with loop ends connecting Syria to Turkey, and Turkey to the continental European system via Greece and Bulgaria. The objective of this unprecedented construction was to establish a Euro-Mediterranean electricity market.
The pilot project, which initiated multiple interconnection tests, didn’t succeed. Although the Maghreb blocks, consisting of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, had demonstrated their effectiveness, the Mashreq block, from Egypt to Syria, showed fluctuations from a disrupted electricity network in the area.
At the time of the deployment of this project, Morocco and Egypt were the only MENA countries exceeding a 10% renewables mix. Both have since set up large-scale development programs for solar and wind. The spur of renewables for the rest of the MENA countries only took place after cost reductions, primarily for PV and wind. In the case of oil and gas producers, the emphasis on renewables has emerged as countries realized that the 8% annual electricity demand growth is eating into the use of their main export commodities; crude oil and natural gas.
Today, the clear-sighted policies and the spread of ambitious renewable energy strategies have resulted in a surplus of energy. Most Gulf Cooperation Council and North African countries experienced a power surplus in 2020, while several countries in the Levant region – namely Lebanon and Iraq – experienced a deficit – according to Apricorp’s “MENA Energy-Investment Outlook 2021-25.”
In a decade, the situation has changed. The rising share of renewables in the system is putting a different challenge to electricity networks. Grids are overloaded with renewable supply. This trend will intensify with the ambitious strategies to raise renewable generation in the global energy mix, as Wessel Bakker, DNV’s business director of offshore power grids, explains.
“To cope with these raised issues in the grid resulting from a high renewable share, we need to figure out smart solutions enabling better use of the existing grids,” says Bakker. “Applying innovative technologies such as smart censoring or adding market dynamics ensures at the first stand that the use of the grid is optimized. But, it doesn’t create the ultimate solution.”
The DNV consultant adds that given the pronounced mismatch between supply and demand in the MENA region at certain periods, there remains a necessity to strengthen grids through enhanced interconnection.
Besides addressing periods of surplus electricity production, interconnection also assists with relieving chronic power shortages in some parts of the region. The Iraqi grid operator has begun work on a project to connect its power network with Jordan, enabling the latter to deliver up to 1TWh per year of electricity to Iraq during the project’s first phase. The plan seeks to address shortages that have forced the country to rely heavily on electricity imports from Iran. The project runs parallel to another plan to build a common power grid with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a local news agency reported, quoting Iraqi Electricity Ministry spokesman Ahmed Al-Abadi.
While the GCC interconnection infrastructure is already in place and operational since 2016, it has a utilization rate below 10%. Its main uses thus far have been for emergency and reserve sharing through bilateral contracts. Since Saudi Arabia’s power system operates at a frequency of 60Hz while the other systems are at 50Hz, the interconnection includes back-to-back HVDC converter stations to connect Saudi Arabia’s 380kV 60Hz system to the 400kV 50Hz power systems. This has significantly delayed interconnector projects between the GCC and the wider MENA area.
The recent interconnection project between Saudi Arabia and Egypt has opened the door to new projects in the area. The $1.6 billion project to improve system reliability and energy imports is gaining momentum in the region. Allowing the daily exchange of up to 3GW at peak times, it is expected to facilitate two complex markets to deliver both increasing cost savings and efficiency gains, especially with rising demand and growing shares of renewables in their power mix.
Europe to MENA
In addition to the cross MENA interconnector projects, more ambitious projects plan to boost EU-MENA interconnectors such as Egypt with Europe via Greece, and Tunisia to Italy. A bold plan to connect Morocco with the United Kingdom via 3,800 kilometers of HVDC sub-sea cables is also being studied.
The construction of such projects relies on the ambitious development plans of solar in northern Africa and benefits from the already quite well-integrated north African electricity markets in terms of physical interconnector capacity.
Although connecting the EU to MENA has been a much-discussed and highly attractive proposition to European markets looking to diversify their power sources, it still has many challenges.
“The sharing of energy resources and the interconnection of networks will create a new era of economic development and integration in the EU-MENA area,” DNV’s Bakker states. “Technological advancement has enabled us to counter many technical constraints. The latest 525kV extruded cable system demonstrates such, capable of transmitting up to 4GW of energy. These higher rates open huge opportunities for both regions.” He adds that the “huge benefits” of such projects are being delayed, with approvals on the EU side particularly slow.
The Moroccan case
Morocco, which is now on track to increase its share of renewables in electricity to 60-65% by 2030, is expected to be one of the main hubs for transferring clean electricity to Europe. It has released significant funds and launched investment programs to support this strategy to strengthen its production and transit capacities. A $172 million average annual investment budget has been allocated to the development and reinforcement of the electricity network in particular for the evacuation needs of new means of production and the increase of the power transit capacity with neighboring countries.
The two 400kV submarine cables with a combined nominal capacity of 1.4GW between Spain and Morocco demonstrate that linking MENA to the EU is feasible. These links are Europe’s only electricity interconnections with MENA.
The lines commissioned in 1997 and 2016, respectively, with a technical capacity of 700MW each, have allowed Morocco to increase the amount of electricity it exports to Europe, from 8GWh in 2017 to 1,207GWh in 2019, according to a forecast made in 2020. Moroccan state owned power and water utility ONEE and Spainish utility REE are examining another reinforcement project with the same technical capacity to be commissioned before 2026.
In addition, a study is underway for a Morocco and Portugal interconnector of 1GW capacity. The technical-economic feasibility study of the interconnection launched on June 20, 2016, jointly by ONEE and the Directorate General of Energy and Geology of Portugal, was awarded to DNV.
Morocco has also recently released its grid code. This step allows more clearance for developers who intend to export their energy to Europe and solve any technical issues that may arise aligning with the European standard.
“Morocco aims to fully integrate its energy market into the European energy market, particularly for electricity, through the deepening and acceleration of the convergence of policies and legislative, institutional, regulatory and governance frameworks relating to the energy sector towards the mechanisms in force at regional level,” says Abdellatif Bardach, president of the Moroccan authority for electricity regulation. “We believe that this regional integration will bring resilience and stability to the grid. We also are looking to integrate further into other markets in North and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Europe. Ongoing studies are exploring the possibility to link the Moroccan grid to West Africa via Mauritania.”
However, despite being a successful example, Morocco still has regulatory challenges to overcome. The Morocco-Spain interconnector capacity is forged through short-term power contracts not allowing long-term capacity bookings. This in effect leaves little to no room for the inclusion of a corporate cross-border PPA.
Moreover, ONEE acts as the sole exporter of electricity from Morocco and there is no precedent for a private operator booking the Morocco-Spain interconnector capacity.
A study conducted by RES4Africa Foundation and PwC in April 2021 also highlights the lack of a developed and mutually recognized system of Guarantees of Origin in Morocco. Although such certifications are now being granted by the regulator to renewable installations with a combined capacity of 280MW. To date, only NOOR I solar station and Khalladi wind farm, with capacities of 160MW and 120MW respectively, are certified.
The grounds are different for cross MENA interconnectors and EU-MENA interconnectors. Running transmission lines across the sea is a challenging task. On the technical level, the Mediterranean is very deep in areas, which requires extra effort in the planning and construction phase. DNV, for one, notes that the maintenance of such infrastructure should not be underestimated.
The structure of electricity demand is also very different between Europe and the MENA countries, with a peak of consumption generally in winter in the north and summer in the south. This is significant in that energy exchange in both directions at different times of the year will help secure electricity supply and reduce production costs by using at all times the sources of power that are often the most beneficial from an environmental point of view.
On the market structure side, the latest report published by the EU on interconnectors with neighboring countries focuses on the fact that such projects should be pursued in countries that share a high level of regulatory convergence and have reliable and well-grounded political, technical, and environmental cooperation with the EU. Differences between the EU and MENA countries regarding power sector structure, market openness, maturity, regulations and institutions, and political stability poses in this fact major challenges.
Both on EU-MENA and cross-MENA levels, projects are prone to legal and regulatory challenges as they cross more than one jurisdiction and require the consensus of many parties. “Getting the infrastructure is one of the challenges and implementing the right technology is another, but making sure that trade can take place, rights are allocated, and sufficient investments are attracted, plus maintaining the crucial balance between the private and public sectors, are matters that are still being worked out in the MENA region,” explains DNV’s UAE area manager, Mohammed Atif.
Another challenge facing interconnectors is in raising adequate investment. There is no doubting the need for such investment; however, coordinating them is more complex and challenging than national infrastructure projects. From an economic perspective, the development of the interconnectors requires a business model that addresses the common regulatory challenges of grid infrastructure, such as incentives for investment and efficient operations.
This model should consider the risk and heterogeneities among countries. Local regulations and levels of energy subsidies in each country need to be adapted to provide greater flexibility and trading opportunities.
Projects composing the group
Nominal Capacity (MW)
Morocco – Portugal
Spain – Morocco
Algeria – Spain
Central Mediterranean corridor
and North Africa Backbone
2 lines exist but not functional
Italy – Tunisia
Algeria – Italy
Algeria – Tunisia – Libya
Egypt – Turkey
Israel – Turkey
Greece – Cyprus – Israel
Cyprus – Egypt joined with the above project
South East Mediterranean hub
Egypt – Jordan
Eastern Balkan corridor
Bulgaria – Turkey – Greece
Mediterranean Middle East
Under construction/ rehabilitation
Jordan – Syria
Syria – Turkey
Jordan – Palestine
By Sara Fountir Benbrahim