The Sahara is usually described as a vast empty land, sparsely populated; representing an Eldorado of renewable energy, thus constituting a golden opportunity to provide Europe with energy so it can continue its extravagant consumerist lifestyle and profligate energy consumption. However, this deceptive narrative overlooks questions of ownership and sovereignty and masks ongoing global relations of hegemony and domination that facilitate the plunder of resources, the privatization of commons and the dispossession of communities, consolidating thus undemocratic and exclusionary ways of governing the transition.
In this context, the Desertec project, an ambitious initiative to power Europe from Saharan solar plants and wind-farms stretching across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was launched with the idea that a tiny surface of the Sahara can provide around 20% of Europe’s electricity by 2050 via special high voltage, direct current transmission cables.
After some years of hype around it, the Desertec venture ultimately stalled amid criticisms of its astronomical costs and its neocolonial connotations. However, the idea seems to have been granted a new lease of life, dubbed Desertec 3.0, this time as the possible answer to Europe’s renewable hydrogen needs. In early 2020, Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) launched the MENA Hydrogen Alliance, which brings together private and public sector actors as well as science and academia to kick-start green hydrogen economies.
Energy transitions, dispossession, and expropriation
Examples from the North African region show how energy colonialism is reproduced even in transitions to renewable energy in the form of green colonialism or green grabbing, raising concerns if what really matters to us is not just any kind of transition but rather a just transition that would benefit the impoverished and marginalized in society, instead of deepening their socio-economic exclusion.
Morocco’s goal is to increase the share of renewable energy in its energy mix to 52% by 2030. The Ouarzazate Solar Plant, for example, launched in 2016 has failed to bring any semblance of justice to the Amazigh agro-pastoralist communities whose lands were used without their consent to install the 3,000 hectare facility. Plus the debt of 9 billion USD from the World Bank, European Investment Bank, and others is backed by Moroccan government guarantees, which means potentially more public debts for a country already over-burdened with debts. Finally, the project is using concentrated thermal power (CSP) that necessitates extensive use of water in order to cool down and clean the panels. In a semi-arid region like Ouarzazate, diverting water use from drinking and agriculture is just outrageous.
The “Noor Midelt” project constitutes Phase II of Morocco’s solar power plan and aims to provide more energy capacity than the Ouarzazate plant. It is a hybrid between CSP and photovoltaic (PV) solar power. With 800MW planned for its first phase, it will be one of the world’s biggest solar projects to combine CSP and PV technologies. In May 2019, a consortium of EDF Renewables (France), Masdar (UAE), and Green of Africa (Moroccan conglomerate) was selected as the successful bidder to construct and operate the facility in partnership with the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN) for a period of 25 years. The project contracted more than 2 billion USD in debts so far from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, French Development Agency and KfW.
Construction on the project started in 2019, while commissioning is expected in 2022. The Noor Midelt solar complex will be developed on 4,141 hectares site on the Haute Moulouya Plateau in Central Morocco, approximately 20km north-east of the Midelt town. A total of 2,714 hectares is managed as communal/collective land by the three ethnic agrarian communities of Ait Oufella, Ait Rahou Ouali, and Ait Massoud Ouali, while approximately 1,427 ha are declared as forest land and currently managed by the communities. The land has been confiscated from its owners through national laws and regulations that allow expropriation in order to serve public interest.
Reminiscent of an ongoing colonial environmental narrative that labels the lands to-be expropriated as marginal and underutilized, and therefore available for investing in green energy, the World Bank – in a study conducted in 2018 – stresses that “the sandy and arid terrain allow only for small scrubs to grow, and the land is not suitable for agricultural development due to lack of water.”
The World Bank report goes on to assert that “the land acquisition for the project will have no impacts on the livelihood of local communities.” However, the transhumant pastoralist tribe of Sidi Ayad who has been using that land to graze its animals for centuries beg to differ. Hassan El Ghazi, a young shepherd, declared in 2019 to an activist from ATTAC Morocco:
“Our profession is pastoralism, and now this project has occupied our land where we graze our sheep. They do not employ us in the project, but they employ foreigners. The land in which we live has been occupied. They are destroying the houses that we build. We are oppressed, and the Sidi Ayad region is being oppressed. Its children are oppressed, and their rights and the rights of our ancestors have been lost. We demand that officials pay attention to our situation and our regions. We do not exist with such policies, and it is better to die, it is better to die!”
In this context the people of Sidi Ayad have been voicing their discontent since 2017 through several protests, leading to the arrest of Said Oba Mimoun in 2019, member of the Union of Small Farmers and Forest Workers, and his sentencing for 12 months in jail.
Women from the Soulaliyate movement (the term “Soulaliyate women” refers to tribal women in Morocco who live on collective land), which began in the early 2000s have also been demanding their right to access land in the Drâa-Tafilalet region and demanded the appropriate compensation for their ancestral land, on which the solar plant has been built. Despite intimidation, arrests, and sieges by public authorities, the movement has become nationwide and women from different regions have rallied behind the banner of equality and justice.
Green colonialism and occupation in Western Sahara
While some of the projects in Morocco, like the Ouarzazate and Midelt Solar Plant can qualify as “green grabbing” – the appropriation of land and resources for purportedly environmental ends – similar renewable projects (solar and wind) that are taking place in the occupied territories of Western Sahara can be simply labelled “green colonialism” as they are carried out in spite of the Saharawis and on their occupied land.
At present, there are three operational wind farms in occupied Western Sahara. A fourth is under construction in Boujdour, while several are in the planning stage. These wind farms are part of the portfolio of Nareva, the wind energy company that belongs to the holding company of the Moroccan royal family. 95% of the energy that the Moroccan state-owned phosphate company OCP needs to exploit Western Sahara’s non-renewable phosphate reserves in Bou Craa are made from windmills.
In November 2016 at the time of the UN Climate Talks COP22, Saudi-Arabia’s ACWA Power signed an agreement with MASEN to develop and operate a complex of three power stations of solar photo-voltaic (PV) totalling 170 MW. Two of those power stations (operational today), totaling 100 MW, are however not located in Morocco, but inside the occupied territory (El Aaiún and Boujdour). Plans have also been issued for a third solar plant at El Argoub, near Dakhla.
It is clear that these renewable projects are being used to entrench the occupation by deepening Morocco’s ties to the occupied territories, with the obvious complicity of foreign capital and companies.
Hydrogen, the new energy frontier in Africa
After this small detour, let’s now come back to Desertec and hydrogen.
Clean or green hydrogen refers to the extraction of hydrogen from more complex substances using ‘clean’ (zero carbon) processes. Most current hydrogen production is the result of extraction from fossil fuels, leading to large carbon emissions (grey hydrogen). Through carbon capture technology, for example, this process can be made cleaner (blue hydrogen). However, the cleanest form of hydrogen extraction uses electrolysers to split water molecules, a process that can be powered by electricity from renewable energy sources (clean or green hydrogen).
The EU’s hydrogen Strategy published in July 2020 – in the framework of the European Green Deal (EGD) – is an ambitious road map for shifting towards green/clean hydrogen by 2050. It proposes that the EU could meet some of its future supply from Africa, in particular North Africa, which offers both huge renewable energy potential and geographic proximity.
The idea originated in a paper published in March 2020 by trade body Hydrogen Europe setting out the “2 x 40 GW green hydrogen initiative.” (One of the authors of this Hydrogen Europe’s 2 x 40 GW initiative paper also co-wrote Dii North Africa-Europe hydrogen “manifesto” in November 2019.) Under this concept, the EU by 2030 would have in place 40 GW of domestic renewable hydrogen electrolyser capacity and import a further 40 GW from electrolysers in neighboring areas, among them the deserts of North Africa, using existing natural-gas pipelines that already connect Algeria and Libya to Europe.
Within Europe, Germany is among those at the forefront of green hydrogen efforts in Africa. It is working with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, and South Africa to develop ‘decarbonized fuel’ generated from renewable energy, for export to Europe and is exploring other potential areas/countries particularly suited to green hydrogen production. In 2020, the Moroccan government entered into a partnership with Germany to develop the first green hydrogen plant on the continent.
The Desertec proposal, which advocates for a European energy system based on 50% renewable electricity and 50% green hydrogen by 2050, starts from the presumption that “Europe will not be able to produce all its renewable energy in Europe itself.” The new Desertec proposal attempts to distance itself from the focus on exports from the initiative’s early days, by adding the dimension of local development of a clean energy system. However, the export agenda to fulfill Europe’s energy security is clear: “…over and beyond catering for domestic demand, most North African countries have huge potential in terms of land and resources to produce green hydrogen for export.”
If that wasn’t convincing enough for the political and business elites in both sides of the Mediterranean, Desertec is presented as both a solution to Europe’s energy transition, and an opportunity for economic development in North Africa which curbs South-North migration: “Furthermore, a joint European – North African renewable energy and hydrogen approach would create economic development, future-oriented jobs and social stability in North-African countries, potentially reducing the number of economic migrants from the region to Europe.”
Being rather an apolitical techno-fix, it promises to overcome these problems without fundamental change, basically maintaining the status quo and the contradictions of the global system that led to these problems in the first place. Big engineering-focused ‘solutions’ like Desertec tend to present climate change as a shared problem with no political or socio-economic context. This perspective hides the historical responsibilities of the industrialized West, the problems of the capitalist energy model, and the different vulnerabilities as well as power asymmetries between countries of the North and the South. By using language such as “mutual cooperation,” “for the benefit of both,” that presents the Euro-Med region as a unified community (“we are all friends now, fighting against a common foe!”), it masks neocolonial structures of power, exploiting African people and plundering their resources.
Furthermore, by pushing for the use of the current gas pipeline infrastructure, it effectively advocates for a mere switch of the energy source while maintaining the existing authoritarian political dynamics and leaving intact the hierarchies of the international order. The fact that it is encouraging the use of pipelines from Algeria and Libya (including through Tunisia and Morocco) brings up a number of questions: What would happen when Europe stops importing gas from them (13% of the gas consumed in Europe is from North Africa)? Would Algeria’s aspirations for democracy and sovereignty – well expressed in the 2019-2021 uprising against the military dictatorship – be taken into account in this equation? Or is it simply another remake of the status quo where hydrogen simply replaces gas? Perhaps, there is nothing new under the sun after all.
Moreover, the Desertec manifesto points out that “in an initial phase (between 2030-2035), a substantial hydrogen volume can be produced by converting natural gas to hydrogen, whereby the CO2 is stored in empty gas/oil fields (blue hydrogen).” This alongside the use of the rare water resources to produce hydrogen can be considered as yet another example of dumping waste in the global South and displacing environmental costs from North to South (the creation of sacrifice zones).
Finally, huge upfront investment would be needed in order to establish the infrastructure required to produce and transport green hydrogen. Given previous experiences carrying out such high-cost and capital-intensive projects, the investment ends up creating more debts for the receiving country, deepening the dependence upon multilateral lending and foreign assistance.
Towards a just transition?
What seems to unite all the aforementioned projects is an erroneous assumption that any move toward renewable energy is to be welcomed, and that any shift from fossil fuels, regardless of how it is carried out, is worthwhile. One needs to say it clearly: the climate crisis we are currently facing is not attributable to fossil fuels per se, but rather to their unsustainable and destructive use in order to fuel the capitalist machine.
Most writing on sustainability, energy transitions, and environmental issues in North Africa is dominated by international neoliberal institutions and think-tanks and does not include questions of class, race, gender, power or colonial history. In all cases, ordinary people and the working poor are excluded from any strategy and painted as inefficient, backward, and unreasonable. The people in North Africa whose lives will be affected the most by the climate/ecological crisis (and the top-down and unjust ways of addressing it) will be the small family farmers, small-scale fisher-folks, pastoralists (whose range lands are being appropriated to build mega-solar plants and wind projects), workers in the fossil fuel and extractive industries, informal workers, and the pauperized classes.
But they are sidelined and prevented from shaping their future. A just transition must fundamentally transform and decolonize our global economic system that is not fit for purpose at the social, ecological, and even biological level (as revealed by COVID-19 pandemic).
In the context of the global discussions around climate justice, we must always ask: Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? Whose interests are being served? Talk of sustainability and “green” transitions must not be a shiny facade for neocolonial schemes of plunder and domination.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Hamza Hamouchene is a London-based Algerian researcher and activist. He is currently the North Africa Programme Coordinator at the Transnational Institute (TNI).