During the mid-noughties I thought that solar thermal power was going to become in the dominant form of renewable energy in the medium term - failing to foresee just how dramatic the price and performance improvements for solar PV and energy storage would be over the following decade.
Back then a vision called Desertec promised cheap, clean north African solar power providing Europe with a healthy slice of its energy needs (and reducing dependence on Russian gas as a side benefit).
The vision slowly faded as it become clearer that Europe could be largely self-sufficient in renewable energy and that building the grid interconnects between Africa and Europe was going to take along time to eventuate. The organisation pivoting in 2013 to focus more on supplying local power demand, particularly in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
There have been some concerns voiced about the 2.25 GW Tunisian project at Tunur in particular, which still aims to export power to Europe in spite of local power shortages by 2018, via a HVDC interconnect to Malta.
The other major North African solar thermal plant under development is at Ouarzazate in Morocco, featuring in a recent BBC report - The colossal African solar farm that could power Europe.
Noor 1, the first phase of the Moroccan plant, has already surpassed expectations in terms of the amount of energy it has produced. ... Noor 2 will be similar to the first phase, but Noor 3 will experiment with a different design. Instead of ranks of mirrors it will capture and store the Sun’s energy with a single large tower, which is thought to be more efficient. Seven thousand flat mirrors surrounding the tower will all track and reflect the sun’s rays towards a receiver at the top, requiring much less space than existing arrangement of mirrors. Molten salts filling the interior of the tower will capture and store heat directly, doing away with the need for hot oil.
Similar systems are already used in South Africa, Spain and a few sites in the US, such as California’s Mojave desert and Nevada. But at 86ft (26m) tall, Ouarzazate’s recently erected structure is the highest of its kind in the world. Other plants in Morocco are already underway. Next year construction will begin at two sites in the south-west, near Laayoune and Boujdour, with plants near Tata and Midelt to follow.
The success of these plants in Morocco – and those in South Africa - may encourage other African countries to turn to solar power. South Africa is already one of the world’s top 10 producers of solar power and Rwanda is home to east Africa’s first solar plant, which opened in 2014. Large plants are being planned for Ghana and Uganda.