9. February 2024 | EDP Wire | Benjamin Schütze, Elia El Khazen, Charlotte Mueller, Philipp Wagner

Facilitating energy flows, containing humans – Authoritarian energy transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region

8 February 2024. Portrayed as a ‘green revolution’, European investments in renewables are extracting energy and profits, while bypassing local communities, strengthening authoritarian governments, increasing indebtedness and privatising economies – an essay by Benjamin Schütze and others.

This EDP Wire is a repost from TNI, the Transnational Institute, where the original article was published.

Contemporary relations between the European Union (EU) and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region represent an uneasy coexistence of facilitating flows of energy to Europe while also containing the flow of humans. The impressive size of shiny futuristic-looking solar fields portrayed in the brochures for the latest EU-MENA mega-energy projects obscures how they are part and parcel of the same project of deepening existing inequalities and furthering specific connectivities through authoritarian practices.

Attempts to achieve an energy transition present a rare opportunity to establish a more democratic, inclusive and sovereign (energy) politics, with renewable energy projects portrayed as being about open flows and connections. Yet the reality both in the MENA region and beyond is characterised by an authoritarian configuration. Efforts to transform the distributed character of renewable energies (unlike coal or oil, the sun shines and the wind blows everywhere, albeit with different intensities) into megaprojects that further consolidate power, and efforts to facilitate selective connectivities between Europe and the MENA region dominate the landscape. Similarly, although the flow of energy and high-skilled labour is strongly encouraged, other forms of South-North migration are firmly repressed.

This essay looks at what these authoritarian practices look like in practice, and how different actors from both within and beyond the MENA region are entangled in them.

Our focus on authoritarian practices rather than authoritarian regimes allows us to overcome the tiresome division of countries into democracies vs. autocracies. This division is unfortunately still far too commonly used, and conceals more than it explains, as actors based in formally democratic settings, including western private companies and multilateral development banks (MDBs), are often the key drivers behind authoritarian practices that directly reinforce socio-economic inequalities. Authoritarian power, as we understand it, is not exclusively wielded by authoritarian regimes, nor is it only about overtly violent repression. Rather, we argue that seemingly non-violent technocratic practices also play a central role in its entrenchment. Besides violent coercion, authoritarian practices also include strategies that pre-empt possible dissent and public participation, along with technocratic strategies that depoliticise authoritarian power in the name of ‘development’ or ‘energy transition’.

While the gradual establishment of a Euro-Mediterranean supergrid and the construction of an increasing number of renewable energy megaprojects that connect to it will facilitate a transition away from fossil fuels, they also represent a form of highly concentrated energy politics that leaves little opportunity for broader public participation. As long as renewables remain embedded in processes of capital accumulation, the replacement of energy sources is bound to reproduce the same inequities enabled by carbon regimes. In addition, the privatisation of electricity infrastructure and production plants facilitates the global management of energy and boosts the role of transnational corporations (TNCs) rather than that of local populations.

Focusing mainly on developments in Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan, this essay reveals the authoritarian and transnationally connected nature of energy transition projects in the MENA region.


Concentrating power in the hands of a few

Private companies and multilateral development agencies frequently describe the energy transition as a purely technical process that requires highly specialised expertise in its planning and implementation. The fact that these interventions often lead to unintended socio-economic consequences is mostly ignored. We argue that technocratic practices play a central role in sustaining authoritarian power, as they depoliticise it in the name of ‘development’, and render violent practices of containment and coercion less visible. In addition, transregionally connected elites, transnational corporations (TNCs), multilateral development banks (MDBs) and international consulting firms directly benefit from and assist in the exclusion of public participation also beyond the field of energy politics.In Tunisia, renewables currently account for only 3% of total energy production. To enhance the shift towards renewables and to strengthen the state’s energy security, the country’s energy sector has increasingly been opened up to private investment, and framed as a technocratic and apolitical endeavour that would not require democratic and broader public decision-making. International companies invited to invest in Tunisia promote energy futures that principally revolve around new opportunities for capital accumulation, thereby excluding alternative visions and local ownership of energy production and distribution.

Neoliberal logics were introduced in the Tunisian energy market via the country’s debt crisis and reinforced privatisations that have been largely pushed by international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank. In particular, Law number 2015-12, adopted in 2015, specifies the legal framework for opening the Tunisian electricity market to (international) private investment and electricity exports to counterbalance the public energy company STEG’s large public debt. Law number 2019-47, implemented in 2019, introduced power purchase agreements (PPAs) with private companies.

The Tunisian National Agency for Energy Management (ANME) regularly launches calls for tender that attract mainly international investors. For the period from 2023 to 2025, renewable energy projects with a capacity of about 1.7 gigawatts (GW) are planned through private-sector investments. As a result, most renewable energy projects in Tunisia are now owned and largely implemented through transnational European companies, such as Engie SA (France), ABO Wind (Germany), or Scatec ASA (Norway). Most of these companies also invest in renewable energies in other countries in the MENA region such as Morocco or Egypt. The increasing dominance of TNCs impedes initiatives that aim to develop decentralised and community-owned renewable energy projects – such as the Working Group for Energy Democracy – Tunisia – as these are guided by the principle of sufficiency rather than profit, and are therefore not attractive to foreign investment.


New transregional connections in lieu of local ownership

Several attempts to link Tunisia’s electricity grid with European countries are currently in development, which will further concentrate the power in the hands of a few powerful elite players. Two projects in particular reveal how transregional elite entanglements underpin these planned megaprojects.

In the first case, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Italian electricity transmission operator TERNA, and the Tunisian public energy company STEG have announced plans to establish the Elmed interconnector between El Haouaria in Tunisia and Partanna in Sicily. The European Commission has defined this 200km electricity transmission line as a ‘project of common interest’ (PCI), lending it greater attention, political weight and funding possibilities. Feasibility studies have been funded by a large consortium including the World Bank and the European Investment Bank (EIB). This highlights the project’s financial significance for these actors and hints at the opportunities for capital accumulation for private companies.

As an additional project for energy interconnectivity, the private-sector-funded project TuNur seeks to establish concentrated solar power technologies (CSP) in the south of Tunisia, using mirrors to concentrate sunlight towards a focal point where turbines produce steam through which electricity is generated. According to one company’s video, the ambition is that ‘Tunisian sun will light European homes – alluding to the project’s export-oriented character. Indeed, TuNur will not even be connected to the country’s electricity grid, but use interconnectors between Tunisia’s northern coast and central Italy to establish a one-way flow of electricity to Europe. The company’s structure is opaque, as a joint venture between companies based in Malta (Zammit Group), the United Kingdom (Nur Energy), and Tunisia.

The Tunisian authorities have recently updated their own national energy targets to increase the share of renewable energies in the national energy mix from around 3% today to 35% by 2030. Given their export-oriented nature, projects such as TuNur undermine these plans. It is not only European economies that will benefit from the Green7 electricity produced, but also the (mainly) European banks and companies that reap the profits from constructing and running such megaprojects.

The dynamics in Morocco are very similar. In the second example, the Xlinks Morocco-UK Power Project – if it is ever implemented – will transport 10.5 GW of renewable energy from Morocco to the UK through a 3,800 km undersea power cable, eventually supplying 7.5% of the UK’s electricity consumption. The planned solar and wind farms, which will require 1,700 km2 of land (more than the entire area of London), would meet only the electricity needs of residents in the UK. It is questionable how far the Moroccan population would ever benefit from this project. The alleged creation of 10,000 new jobs has in previous projects proven to be nothing but a pipe dream.

Portraying the TuNur and XLinks projects as ‘capturing and connecting the power of nature and ‘opening new green energy corridors between Africa and Europeobscures the fact that the benefits from the purported ‘connection’ or ‘corridor’ go in only one direction. This is evident in the neo-colonial conception of the desert as an empty land, which is being made valuable by becoming an Eldorado of renewable energy for Europe.

The idea of the Saharan desert as a central hub for electricity production has been circulating for some time. According to the former Desertec initiative’s 2005 estimate, it would be necessary to equip a surface of 130,000 square kilometres in the Sahara with solar collectors to produce enough energy to meet global demand. While the Desertec project itself failed, TuNur and XLinks can be seen as its successors – albeit under new names.

Trade unions such as Tunisia’s General Federation for Electricity and Gas (FGEG) and initiatives like the Tunisian Platform for Alternatives are advocating for a different approach based on local ownership, but their position is undermined by TNCs’ opaque and seemingly technocratic projects. This directly affects decision-making processes, in which the views of citizens and social movements are largely excluded. Civil society organisations (CSOs) have denounced their exclusion from the development of Tunisia’s Green hydrogen strategy, which is currently drafted by the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, and, according to some estimates, foresees exports of up to 5.5 million tons of Green hydrogen to Europe by 2050. Given the large-scale infrastructure needed to produce and transport Green hydrogen and in view of the outcomes of previous megaprojects in the region, there is a strong likelihood of further infrastructural harm to local populations as well as land conflicts.



You can find the original article here.

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