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SOLAR CARTEL

Let's imagine that all the sun-belt countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) decided to cut off all supplies of solar electricity to the EU.

If this happened before any solar imports to the EU had developed, then it seems likely that the EU could find all the electricity that it needs from its own resources. It would probably cost more than solar imports from MENA but it could certainly be done. According to a report from the European Environment Agency, wind power could provide all of Europe’s electricity needs, and more. Another report from the US National Academy of Sciences reaches similar conclusions for the world. There is a lot of potential in wave power. According to a report from MIT (PDF, 14.4 MB) the potential of "Enhanced Geothermal Energy" (EGS) is huge. And CSP can be used in places like southern Spain, southern Italy, Greece etc.

If solar imports were cut off suddenly when the EU was already importing 15% of its electricity from MENA (as is envisaged for the year 2050 in the TRANS-CSP report), it would clearly cause a problem. But it is a problem that could be overcome:

  • In the short-term, people can simply tighten their belts. A lot of the electricity we use is not essential. For example, washing lines may be used instead of energy-hungry tumble dryers.
  • In the medium to longer term, the EU could develop alternative sources of electricity from offshore and onshore wind power, wave power, geothermal power etc. Of course, this would be very much against the interests of countries in the solar cartel because they would risk losing their solar exports altogether.
So, in general, it appears that the EU does have acceptable fall-back positions that it can take in the case of a complete blockade on solar imports from MENA.

A couple of other points:
  • It is worth comparing the rather small risk that a solar cartel might cut off supplies with the kinds of risks to energy supplies that industrialised countries have been living with for years and the risks that the UK government and others are happy to accept for future energy supplies:
    • We are extraordinarily dependent on imports of fossil fuels from all over the world and, as we have seen in 2007 and 2008, we are extraordinarily vulnerable to increases in the cost of those imports. Many people believe that the Iraq war was motivated primarily by the desire to secure access to Iraqi oil. The huge cost of that war in lives, injuries and money represents a very substantial downside to the energy strategy that people in industrialised countries have been regarding as "normal" for many years.
    • The UK government is keen to see a big expansion of nuclear power. The risks associated with this strategy are far greater than the risks associated with any possible solar cartel (see Why we don't need nuclear power). They include the risks of a Chernobyl-style accident or worse, the risks arising from the need to store high-level nuclear waste for thousands of years, the risks of 9/11-style attacks on nuclear power stations, the risks of hijacking or attack of nuclear waste transports or nuclear fuel transports on trains, lorries or ships, the risk that terrorists will create a dirty bomb or even a nuclear bomb, the risks of nuclear proliferation, and the risk that supplies of high-grade uranium ore will be exhausted quite quickly if China, the USA etc follow the same strategy.
  • Today, we accept it as quite normal that countries throughout Europe trade energy with each other. If there is distrust between the EU and countries in MENA, we need to ask why that distrust exists and think hard about how to break it down. The same goes for distrust between the EU and Russia. We need to try to reach a situation where there are good relations amongst countries of EUMENA and we all feel relaxed about trading energy (or anything else) with each other. The new Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) appears to be a step in the right direction. One of the most effective ways of breaking down distrust between different groups of people is to engage in a cooperative project where both sides gain. The Mediterranean Solar Plan which has been proposed for the UfM is just such a project.

Last updated: 2009-08-20 (ISO 8601)