The potential of the Sahara desert in North Africa to generate large amounts of renewable energy thanks to its dry climate and vast expanses of land has long been touted. For years, the Europeans, in particular, have considered it a potential source of solar energy that could satisfy a sizable chunk of European energy demands.
In 2009, the Desertec project, an ambitious initiative to power Europe from Saharan solar plants was launched by a coalition of European industrial firms and financial institutions with the idea that a tiny surface of the desert can provide 15 percent of Europe’s electricity via special high voltage direct current transmission cables.
The Desertec venture eventually stalled amid criticisms of its astronomical costs and its neo-colonial connotations. After an attempt to revive it as Desertec 2.0 with a focus on the local market for renewable energy, the project was eventually reborn into Desertec 3.0, which aims to satisfy Europe’s demand for hydrogen, a “clean” energy alternative to fossil fuels.
In early 2020, Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) launched the MENA Hydrogen Alliance to help set up energy projects in the Middle East and North Africa region that produce hydrogen for export.
While in Europe such projects may sound like a good idea – helping the continent fulfil its targets of greenhouse emission cuts – the view from North Africa is radically different. There are growing concerns that instead of helping the region with its green transition, these schemes will result in the plunder of local resources, dispossession of communities, environmental damage and entrenchment of corrupt elites.
Hydrogen: The new energy frontier in Africa
As the world seeks to switch to renewable energy amid a growing climate crisis, hydrogen has been presented as a “clean” alternative fuel. Most current hydrogen production is the result of extraction from fossil fuels, leading to large carbon emissions (grey hydrogen). The cleanest form of hydrogen – “green” hydrogen – comes from electrolysis of water, a process that can be powered by electricity from renewable energy sources.
In recent years, under heavy lobbying from various interest groups, the EU has embraced the idea of a hydrogen transition as a centrepiece of its climate response, introducing in 2020 its hydrogen strategy within the framework of the European Green Deal (EGD). The plan proposes shifting to “green” hydrogen by 2050, through local production and establishing a steady supply from Africa.
It was inspired by ideas put forward by trade body and lobby group Hydrogen Europe, which has set out the “2 x 40 GW green hydrogen initiative”. Under this concept, by 2030 the EU would have in place 40 gigawatts of domestic renewable hydrogen electrolyser capacity and import a further 40 gigawatts from electrolysers in neighbouring areas, among them the deserts of North Africa, using existing natural-gas pipelines that already connect Algeria to Europe.
Germany, where Desertec was launched, has been on the forefront of the EU’s hydrogen strategy. Its government has already approached the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Morocco to develop “decarbonised 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.
Initiatives like Desertec have been quick to jump on the hydrogen bandwagon, which is likely to bring billions of euros of EU funding. Its manifesto reflects the general narrative used to promote the hydrogen and renewable energy projects. It tries to present them as beneficial for local communities. It claims it could bring “economic development, future-oriented jobs and social stability in North-African countries”.
But it also makes clear the extractive nature of this scheme: “for a fully renewable energy system in Europe, we need North Africa to produce cost-competitive solar and wind electricity, converted to hydrogen, for export by pipeline to Europe”. And it makes sure to indicate its commitment to “Fortress Europe”, by claiming that the projects could “[reduce] the number of economic migrants from the region to Europe”.
In other words, the vision behind Desertec and many of these European “green” projects in North Africa seeks to preserve the current exploitative, neo-colonial relations Europe has with the region.
A neo-colonial ‘green transition’
During the colonial era, European powers set up a vast economic system to extract wealth, raw materials and (slave) labour from the African continent. Although the 20th century brought independence to African colonies, this system was never dismantled; it was only transformed, often with the help of local post-colonial authoritarian leaders and elites.
Now the fear is that the EU’s green transition will continue to feed this exploitative economic system to the benefit of European big business and to the detriment of local communities in African countries they partner with. The push for new hydrogen supply chains proposed in projects like Desertec does little to alleviate these concerns.
This is because one of the biggest lobbies behind the EU’s turn to hydrogen represents fossil fuel companies, whose origins are tightly linked to the colonial exploits of European powers. Two of DII’s partners, for example, are the French energy giant Total and the Dutch oil major Shell.
In Africa and elsewhere, fossil fuel companies continue to use the same exploitative economic structures set up during colonialism to extract local resources and transfer wealth out of the continent.
They are also keen on preserving the political status quo in African countries so they can continue to benefit from lucrative relations with corrupt elites and authoritarian leaders. This basically allows them to engage in labour exploitation, environmental degradation, violence against local communities, etc with impunity.
In this sense, it is not surprising that the fossil fuel industry and its lobbies are pushing for embracing hydrogen as the “clean” fuel of the future in order to stay relevant and in business. The industry wants to preserve the existing natural gas infrastructure and pipelines, along with the exploitative economic relations behind them.
Given the industry’s long track record of environmental damage and abuse, it is also not surprising that the hydrogen drive hides major pollution risks. Desertec’s manifesto, for example, 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”. This alongside the use of scarce water resources to produce hydrogen are yet another example of dumping waste in the global South and displacing environmental costs from the North to the South.
The economic benefits for the local population are also under question. A huge upfront investment would be needed in order to establish the infrastructure required to produce and transport green hydrogen to Europe. Given previous experiences carrying out such high-cost and capital-intensive projects, the investment ends up creating more debt for the receiving country, deepening the dependence upon multilateral lending and Western financial assistance.
North African energy projects established with European support in the past decade already show how energy colonialism is reproduced even in transitions to renewable energy in the form of green colonialism or green grabbing.
In Tunisia, a solar energy project called TuNur, endorsed by Desertec, has been scrutinised for its export-oriented plans. Given the country’s massive energy deficiency and dependence on imports of Algerian natural gas for power generation, exporting electricity while the local population suffers from repeated blackouts makes little sense.
In Morocco, the untransparent land acquisition process and water exploitation plans of the Ouarzazate Solar Plant – also supported by DII members – have raised questions about possible harms local communities may suffer. The high cost of the project – paid for with loans from international financial institutions – has also raised concern about its debt burden on the national budget.
Amid the growing climate crisis, North African countries cannot afford to continue engaging in such exploitative projects. They cannot continue being exporters of cheap natural resources to Europe and the site of displaced socio-environmental costs of its green transition.
They need a just transition that involves a shift to an economy that is ecologically sustainable, equitable and just for all. In this context, existing neo-colonial relations and practices must be challenged and halted.
As for European countries and corporations, they need to break away from the imperial and racialised logic of externalising costs. Otherwise, they would continue to feed green colonialism and further pursuit of exploitation of nature and labour for a supposedly green agenda, which would undermine collective efforts for an effective and just global response to climate change.