The Sahara Wind Project -- Wind, Hydrogen, Water, and Green Campuses
Personal Notes: The Sahara Wind project is interesting for a number of reasons. Readers of this blog will no doubt be aware of the great potential renewable energy, especially wind energy, has in making water purification (desalination or otherwise) economically affordable and environmentally sustainable. The Sahara Wind project goes a step farther in this regard by not only providing the power, but also one of the necessary inputs, chlorine, to the process.
The Sahara Wind project's choice to produce hydrogen is also a key component in that it solves what is often one of the major drawbacks to renewable energy technologies -- little capacity for storage. Not only is hydrogen transportable, but it can also be used to help stabilize grid production and make up for renewables when the winds are weak or the sun is not shining. The Sahara wind project is also interesting in its regional dimension. Its many partners include not only international organizations and Moroccan institutions, but also their Mauritanian counterparts. These partnerships could lead to real regional integration and a harnessing of the plentiful wind and solar resources of Mauritania.
By far one of the most interesting aspects of the Sahara Wind project is not just its new integration of technologies or even its proven economic viability. Rather it is the cooperation of the project with university campuses across the region, and an integration of its technologies with educational programs. One of the most crucial aspects for MENA countries now is not only developing the potential of their natural renewable resources, but also developing the potential of their human resources. By introducing students to these technologies in an applied academic setting, Sahara Wind is setting the stage for a new generation of North African researchers, manufacturers, managers, and entrepreneurs, not only in renewable energy but also in desalination, hydrogen vehicles, and more.
The Sahara Wind ProjectIn no other place in the world is wind energy used for so many different purposes as between Morocco and Mauritania – all within an intricately inter-related system including scientists, academia, government agencies, industrial companies and NATO – that ultimately could benefit the lives of millions of people.
The winds that blow along the Atlantic coast from Morocco to Senegal represent one of the largest wind potentials available on Earth. However, due to the erratic nature of winds, steady electricity is difficult to integrate on any significant scale unless local mechanisms are developed to improve access to this more intermittent renewable energy.
Both based in Rabat, Morocco, Sahara Wind Inc. joined forces with the International Institute for Water and Sanitation (ONEP-IEA) to address how to harness and utilize the tremendous wind potential coming off the Atlantic most efficiently. The ingenuous system that resulted from their combined effort functions as follows:
Combining Wind Energy and Electrolyzer Technologies
When winds blow as strong as they do in many parts of the African continent, such as Egypt, and particularly in the Sahara/Sahel region, the power generated by turbines remains nonetheless intermittent – winds are never steady. Electrolyzer technologies can enhance access to such intermittent sources of renewable energy in weaker grid infrastructures by stabilizing variable electricity levels. Electrolysis also produces chlorine, an indispensable element for the treatment and purification of potable water. The Sahara Wind Clean Hydrogen and Water Project aims to solve both energy access and water treatment solutions.
The site selected for the introductory phase of the Sahara Wind Project is located in Morocco’s main water treatment facility and ONEP’s corporate headquarters. Coupling electrolyzers with wind turbines to produce chlorine also generates hydrogen which has multiple functions as a feedstock and energy carrier. Hydrogen can be considered a renewable energy storage medium and used as backup when fed through a fuel cell or even as a clean fuel in clean mobility applications.
The system devised therefore creates electricity grid stabilization and attains energy efficiency objectives while recuperating hydrogen. Future plans are to partner with these industries which represent the main local energy loads to build an integrated energy system complementary to Sahara Wind’s High Voltage DC Transmission Project. Labeled within the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy (IPHE)’s list of world hydrogen projects, this project will ultimately use hydrogen storage and hydrogen shipping via pipelines as well. Enhancing local ownership of trade winds on a regional basis to support more sustainable industrial processing of mining resources, this system could become a secondary power source to both North Africa and Europe.
Integrating Wind Energy and Water Treatment Technologies
A Green Corporate Campus was developed within Morocco’s Water and Electric Utilities headquarters to highlight the importance of integrative industrial processes when accessing renewable energies. The nearby location of the ONEP-IEA training programs within Africa’s second largest water treatment station provide an operational environment that is most advantageous to finding innovative technological solutions to today’s energy challenges.
On site, small wind turbines feed power into the administrative headquarters and the energy proceeds are then applied to the water treatment station nearby. To maximize output, a dual approach is used to test technologies in an industrial setting while demonstrating the multiple uses of green hydrogen in storing and using renewable energies within a green building concept. Combining wind turbines and hydrogen in a green urban setting addresses the lack of energy efficiency and sustainability currently impeding hydrogen technologies.
Finding the most adequate processes for the intermittent production, filtration and pressurized storage of hydrogen represent the major challenges that need to be addressed.
Hydrogen is stored in pressurized tanks and used as a fuel for electricity generation through fuel cells for power backup (emergency power), peak power shedding and in hydrogen eco-mobility applications (eco-karts). Carrying out smart grid applications with hydrogen storage as an eco-mobility solution is important to initiate and demonstrate within Morocco’s water utility headquarters. Fuel cell vehicles built by regional engineering schools with local automobile manufacturers creates complementary solutions for clean mobility and represents one the most environmentally friendly technologies available.
How this system is self-sustainable
Chlorine/hypochlorite supports the ONEP-IEA sanitation pilot plant. All components connect to the local power distribution grid of the water treatment station and the adjacent administrative headquarter complex. A signal from the small wind turbine is sent into the electrolyzer power setting to stabilize the wind mini-grid system as if it were running in a stand-alone renewable energy setting.
The system enables the wind, electrolyzer, and hydrogen components to operate independently. The flexibility and reliability of the entire system is thus reinforced, as a critical failure of any single component will not impact the functioning of others. End-users will benefit from the functionality of individual components as well as from the entire system that could be replicated to any industrial setting.
Tarfaya – Pilot Project
In order to supply the local water processing plant and the surrounding Saharan region with integrated water treatment solutions, a pilot project in the windy region of Tarfaya is currently being installed.
Tarfaya wind-electrolysis: A large pilot project in Tarfaya aims to support chlorine needs in the Saharan trade wind region. The Tarfaya pilot project has a capacity optimized for remote applications on an industrial scale. Building upon experience drawn from the first system installed at the ONEP/IEA pilot plant, this larger project uses hydrogen in grid support back-up systems as well as clean mobility and chemical feedstock applications.
Wind resource assessment: The integration of other electrolysis by-products such as oxygen, chlorine and caustic soda within local industries will rely on wind measurements carried out through the Sahara Trade Winds to Hydrogen: Applied Research for Sustainable Energy Systems network of project partners in Morocco and Mauritania. The wind assessment relies on ongoing academic-industry partnerships with telecom operators and energy users. The availability of mast tower infrastructures enables accurate wind measurements.
Equipment selection and design: The selection of equipment emanates from partner universities which have industrial engineering programs on small wind turbine component designs, integration and maintenance, electrolyser planning, configuration and site design with hydrogen storage and fuel cell systems. Overall project costs and risks associated with technology deployment are likely to be reduced as future design and maintenance issues will benefit from experiences of previously deployed systems.
Green Campus Connections
The concept of the ‘Green Corporate Campus’ is for local and international training and sensitization activities of ONEP-IEA. This platform along with Morocco’s engineering universities could be introduced within Morocco-UNIDO’s automotive industry program.
A long-term regional collaborative applied research framework has been established between educational institutions in Morocco and Mauritania. The Sahara Trade Winds to Hydrogen: Applied Research for Sustainable Energy Systems Program involves 18 institutions from 6 different countries. This end-user driven applied research project is focused on facilitating integrated access to wind energy through industrial synergies. The project is carried out in partnership with local industries, public utilities and the universities of Morocco and Mauritania.
Project partners from the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue countries are the École d’Ingénieurs Arts et Métiers (ENSAM) in Meknes and Al-Akhawayn Universities (Morocco), and the University of Nouakchott (Mauritania). The NATO countries Project Partners are the USA (State Department, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs-OES), France (Commisariat Énergie Atomique), Germany (NRW) and Turkey (UNIDO-ICHET). First presented at the USA-Morocco Science & Technology Agreement signing ceremony in 2006, the project opened regional perspectives on integrated renewable energy applications such as green campuses, smart grids, green mobility and synergetic industrial processes.
Co-developing wind-electrolysis technologies enables university campuses fed by small wind turbines to stabilize their power grids with electrolyzers and to become living laboratories of renewable energy integration through hydrogen storage. An industrial engineering program for building small wind turbines enables engineering students to better address the operation and maintenance of these systems. In seeking stand-alone power supply solutions, telecom operators agreed to provide their mast infrastructures network for wind measurements. An exhaustive network of telecom masts towers is now available in Morocco and Mauritania for a regional assessment of trade wind resources.
To match the needs of local industries, a new training curriculum is devised at the University of Nouakchott, Mauritania. In Morocco, the Al-Akhawayn University’s Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Management program received a first-year record enrollment. Fuel-cell vehicle prototypes co-developed at Ecole Mohammedia d’Ingenieurs – Morocco’s largest engineering school – in partnership with local automotive industries, will be tested utilizing an on-campus green-hydrogen filling station.
A more comprehensive approach for access to and potential applications of Saharan trade winds will enable a more effective tackling of current regional social, economic, and political challenges. The processing of mineral resources, while utilizing the region’s wind potential could for instance provide enhanced sustainability. When applied to phosphates – a critical element to world food security – or iron-ore processing, resource efficiencies may be seen under a different light. Once training and expertise is available, renewable energy access can be addressed through a much broader synergetic context. Besides enhancing local ownership of resources, this approach is complementary to renewable energy developments occurring elsewhere in Europe. This enables a leveraging of both social and technological benefits derived from green energies.
Connecting with Europe and the Mediterranean
Given wind energy’s undisputable importance to the economies of both North Africa and Europe in the near future, efforts have been mobilized to meet the former’s education, training and capacity building needs. The Sahara Wind Project’s phased implementation and initial capacity of 400-500 MW provides a market based, locally integrated economic development rationale justifying the transfer of wind technologies into developing countries.
Considering that Morocco is for 97% dependent on imported fossil fuels and Mauritania has tremendous difficulties to access electricity, problems related to energy scarcity, higher costs of energy and limited access to water could in the long-term, combined with environmental degradation, desertification and demographic pressure, generate great economic distress. The building of scientific capacities that can generate a constructive dynamic grouped around a booming sustainable energy industry could provide economic alternatives and curb migration, thus contributing social integration. Fostering regional (south/south) collaboration in clean energy technologies to tackle energy access challenges is a critical issue. Beyond addressing Morocco and Mauritania’s immediate needs, supporting the region’s transition from a fossil fuel system to one driven by renewables is a strategic priority for long-term security and stability in Saharan, Mediterranean and European countries.
The Sahara Wind Project participates in official focus groups to assess training and education needs to support Morocco’s Solar and Wind Energy plans of 2 GW each by 2020.
Sahara Wind – From Idea to Project
1993 – Initial wind measurements installed (Sahara trade wind region)
1994 – Report on Sahara trade wind energy potential to H.M. King Hassan II
1994-97 – Wind-Diesel-Hybrid test site with small grids and variable loads
1997-99 – EU discussions (Commission and Parliament) of importing electricity from Saharan Atlantic trade winds to Europe
2002 – Sahara Wind Inc. presents the Sahara Wind Project at the European Parliament
2003-05 – Joint “Morocco Sahara Wind Phase I / Tarfaya On-Grid Electricity in a Liberalized Market”; Public-Private Partnership (PPP) with Moroccan Ministry of Energy to supply Euro-Mediterranean markets with a base of 5000 MW.
2005-11+ – Regional projects and integrative processes: UNIDO, IPHE, IEA, USA-Morocco S&T agreement, NATO SfP-982620, capacity building industry-academia partnerships in Morocco and Mauritania.
NATO supports the Sahara Wind Project
The NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Program is a policy tool that enhances regional cooperation through scientific projects and dialogues between NATO and its partners. Science has the unique ability to provide solutions to security challenges as well as foster collaboration even between disparate nations and regions. The SPS program consists of NATO-funded activities, as well as nationally-funded SPS activities. For more information, visit the NATO SPS program
A version of this article appeared as the energy feature for Revolve’s No.3 issue, Winter 2011/12, on pages 50-57.
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