Japan, Tunisia Forge Sustainable Business Partnership in the Sahara

This past weekend at the second annual Japan-Arab Economic Forum, the governments of Japan and Tunisia formally sealed a deal to collaborate on a sustainable business project that takes advantage of Tunisia’s ample solar resources. Together the two countries will be building a solar power plant in the Sahara desert, which is rapidly becoming a hot spot for some of the most innovative solar power projects in the world. This is an encouraging sign that Japan, like neighboring countries such as South Korea and China, is serious about expanding 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 making plans to collaborate on a five megawatt pilot solar project in the Sahara, with the goal of signing a memorandum of understanding at this year’s Japan-Arab Economic Forum. However this isn’t the first instance of Japan working with Saharan countries on solar-related sustainable business projects. Japanese universities have been partnering with their counterparts in Algeria on the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, which has set the ambitious goal of generating half the world’s electricity by the year 2050. The logic behind building big solar projects in the Sahara is simple: the Sahara Desert receives a huge amount of sunlight, and is situated relatively close to at least one major energy consuming region—Europe. It only makes sense to harness that power to help move humanity beyond fossil fuels.

Not only that, desert sand also contains silicon, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of solar panels. The Sahara Solar Breeder Project aims to start by building manufacturing plants that generate usable silicon from the Sahara’s sand, which will then be used in the construction of solar panels. These panels will help generate the energy needed to convert more sand into silicon, in a process that could theoretically continue to feed and build on itself for decades. If all goes well solar power projects throughout the Sahara could soon be using renewable energy to turn local resources into equipment for producing even more renewable electricity. It’s hard to think of a better model for sustainable business.

Developing solar energy in the Sahara and surrounding areas could help economies now largely dependent on oil exports adjust to a future no longer powered by fossil fuels. Historically, oil-dependent nations like Saudi Arabia have been some of the most vocal opponents of international climate agreements. If these countries come to see sustainable business projects as an opportunity for economic development, 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 may not seem like a very big deal. However the process of converting the Sahara Desert into a major electricity producer is one that will take years or decades to complete, and will require skillful cooperation between the national governments of both developing and industrialized countries. The decision to pursue solar power at the Japan-Arab Economic Forum suggests Japan recognizes the importance of growing sustainable business in this region. The signing of an agreement to help Tunisia develop solar energy represents one more step toward a future in which sunlight powers much of the world’s energy needs.

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