This past weekend at the second annual Japan-Arab Economic Forum, thegovernments of Japan and Tunisia formally sealed a deal to collaborateon a sustainable business project that takes advantage of Tunisia’sample solar resources. Together the two countries will be building asolar power plant in the Sahara desert, which is rapidly becoming a hotspot for some of the most innovative solar power projects in the world. This is an encouraging sign that Japan, likeneighboring countries such as South Korea and China, is serious aboutexpanding its involvement in sustainable business worldwide, and partnering with other countries to develop renewable energy projects.
Since January representatives of Japan and Tunisia have been makingplans to collaborate on a five megawatt pilot solar project in theSahara, with the goal of signing a memorandum of understanding at thisyear’s Japan-Arab Economic Forum. However this isn’t the first instanceof Japan working with Saharan countries on solar-related sustainablebusiness projects. Japanese universities have been partnering with their counterparts in Algeria on the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, which hasset the ambitious goal of generating half the world’s electricity by the year 2050. The logic behind building big solar projects in the Saharais simple: the Sahara Desert receives a huge amount of sunlight, and issituated relatively close to at least one major energy consumingregion—Europe. It only makes sense to harness that power to help movehumanity beyond fossil fuels.
Not only that, desert sand also contains silicon, an essentialingredient in the manufacture of solar panels. The Sahara Solar BreederProject aims to start by building manufacturing plants that generateusable silicon from the Sahara’s sand, which will then be used in theconstruction of solar panels. These panels will help generate the energy needed to convert more sand into silicon, in a process that couldtheoretically continue to feed and build on itself for decades. If allgoes well solar power projects throughout the Sahara could soon be using renewable energy to turn local resources into equipment for producingeven more renewable electricity. It’s hard to think of a better modelfor sustainable business.
Developing solar energy in the Sahara and surrounding areas could helpeconomies now largely dependent on oil exports adjust to a future nolonger powered by fossil fuels. Historically, oil-dependent nations like Saudi Arabia have been some of the most vocal opponents ofinternational climate agreements. If these countries come to seesustainable business projects as an opportunity for economicdevelopment, they may become less reluctant to sign onto a climate deal.
In the context of an international push to develop desert solar power on a massive scale, one more five megawatt solar project in Tunisia maynot seem like a very big deal. However the process of converting theSahara Desert into a major electricity producer is one that will takeyears or decades to complete, and will require skillful cooperationbetween the national governments of both developing and industrializedcountries. The decision to pursue solar power at the Japan-Arab Economic Forum suggests Japan recognizes the importance of growing sustainablebusiness in this region. The signing of an agreement to help Tunisiadevelop solar energy represents one more step toward a future in whichsunlight powers much of the world’s energy needs.