Mauritania & the Megaton Moon

GreenGo’s Megaton Moon proposed project: a vast wind and solar farm in Mauritainia, using the Mauritanian flag as inspiration for the layout.

At COP28 in Dubai 118 countries have signed up to a voluntary pledge to triple renewable energy generation and double energy efficiency by 2030. These pledges are a very variable thing: some countries will take them seriously and implement policies aimed at achieving these goals. For other countries it is, no doubt, just a meaningless public relations exercise. However there are other countries which will massively surpass the goal of tripling renewable energy production. It is this last group that interest me most. Let us look at just one.

In Mauritania only about half the population have access to electricity, and the country only used 1.88TWh in 2021. Mauritania has huge expanses of flat, windswept, sunny deserts, ideal for building large scale wind and solar projects. GreenGo Energy is a Danish based clean energy company that was founded in 2011, and has partnered with several cleantech funding organizations, such as Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, who have an impressive track record.

GreenGo and the Mauritanian government are proposing to build a massive wind and solar project in Mauritania with a capacity to generate 190TWh per year, which would be a hundred-fold increase in Mauritania’s electricity supply. Some of the energy would be used to desalinate seawater and increase agricultural production, some would be used to help supply more of the Mauritanian people with electricity and to help the country build hospitals, schools and housing, but all of this would use only a small part of the wind and solar generated electricity. Much would be used to make green hydrogen, which could then be used locally or exported, either as hydrogen or as ammonia or e-methanol. Making this green hydrogen at such scale in such a favourable location for sun and wind deployment should mean very cheap energy, perhaps half the cost it could be produced for in Europe. People and industry have always moved to where energy is most abundant and cheap. It is where new economic opportunities emerge. I wrote about this in my book ‘System Change Now!’ where I speculated about such massive projects and mentioned Mauritania as one of a number of countries well suited to host such megaprojects.

BP, the oil giant, announced a year ago that they had signed-up a memorandum of understanding with the government of Mauritania to explore the feasibility of producing green hydrogen in Mauritania. I have not heard if they have made any progress.

It seems likely that someone will get a big project of this nature built in Mauritania. There are always many stages involved in these kinds of projects and raising the vast sums of money involved is not easy. To my mind the GreenGo project looks more likely to happen than the BP one, but only time will tell. Chris Goodall, in his excellent Carbon Commentary Newsletter, points out that transporting hydrogen by pipeline is very much cheaper than sending electricity via cable, or presumably transporting hydrogen in specialized ships, and he speculates about the possibility of a hydrogen pipe connecting Mauritania to Europe. Demand for green hydrogen is very strong in Europe and a cheap and abundant supply will be necessary to help decarbonize Europe, and the World, and in the process bring a better and more prosperous future for Mauritania and for Africa generally.

The Mauritanian economy is currently dominated by mining, and they have ambitious plans to double iron ore production by 2026. With the cheap wind and solar generated electricity and green hydrogen that the GreenGo project promises, Mauritania would then be able to convert their ore directly into steel at the mine site, which would reduce the need to transport bulky iron ore for export. They could of course also electrify the railway linking the mine to the port. I speculated about all this in my book, long before I heard of the plans of BP or GreenGo Energy. Mauritania has the ideal resource base from which to build an inclusive and sustainable form of prosperity, for Mauritania, and also to help the rest of the world. To do all of this requires a lot of good decision making by politicians, companies and investors. It is a country I shall continue to watch.

The BBC and the Climate Crisis

Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s Chief Scientist, tweeted this graph from the IEA, and stated ‘Anyone would think, given their prominence, that oil companies were at the centre of the energy transition. But the numbers show they aren’t- they are peripheral, and should be treated as such until they change’

I would love to see the BBC tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis properly. So far, in all my decades of watching TV I’ve never once seen the kind of programme that I think the county, and the world, is crying out to see.

A couple of weeks ago Panorama tried to address the issues with a programme called ‘Why Are We Still Searching for Fossil Fuels?’ In it Richard Bilton looks at the expansion plans of fossil fuel companies and shows how far they exceed any safe carbon budget. We are on course for catastrophic climate change. 20 minutes and 55 seconds into the programme Richard Bilton states ‘The oil and gas companies are so enormous, they operate at such vast volumes, it is really hard to get a solution to climate change without their involvement.’ This fundamentally misunderstands the processes of change, and makes telling the more positive stories in relation to the climate and biodiversity crisis impossible to tell. Nearly all the exciting innovation is coming from new start-ups and not from the old energy incumbents. (The above pie chart shows how little of the cleantech investments are coming from fossil companies: just 1%. They are irrelevent)

In 2017 I posted a blog under the title ‘Can Companies Change?’ In it I contrasted the Danish company DONG, formally the Danish Oil and Gas Company, who gradually developed into the world’s largest offshore wind developer, sold off all their fossil fuel interests and changed their name to Orsted. They are one of the very few fossil fuel companies to make this kind of transition. Peabody, formally the world’s largest coal producer, failed to change, and filed for bankruptcy in 2016. Most of the big oil and gas companies have dabbled in renewables, but for most of them it is a tiny share of their total capital investments. Probably they have now left it too late to change. It seems ever more likely that many of the big oil and gas companies will fail to change and go bankrupt as demand for their products withers in the face of cleantech expansion.

The fast growing renewables and cleantech sector is utterly dominated by new start-ups. That is where technical innovation is happening. Social innovation is happening in many ways, often led by cities. Ecological restoration is being led by many farmers and pioneering organizations.

A number of programmes could focus on solar power. The improved performance and falling price of solar panels is rapidly expanding their deployment in most, but not all, countries. It would be good to hear more about community ownership projects like The Big Solar Co-op, the way China is massively investing in solar power, and how solar is transforming villages across Africa. Offshore wind is really taking off in many places, and it would be good to hear more about this. Surplus wind and solar power will need to be stored for times of little sun or wind, and energy storage, like solar panels, are undergoing rapid change. Recent advances in, for example, sodium-ion batteries for grid electricity storage or e-methanol for fuelling shipping are signs of profound change. In the EU primary energy demand peaked in 2006 and has been slowly declining since.* As renewables exponentially expand, the demand for fossil fuels will inevitably dwindle. Other regions, such as Latin America, are following this path, and eventually all countries will.

Many cities are decreasing car dependency through investing in walking, cycling, public transport, and also as more people work from home, cities will see their need for cars and oil decrease rapidly, and air quality and human health improve. On numerous rewilding and ecological farming projects biodiversity is beginning to recover, and to flourish. This can be done while also producing energy, more and better food and employment. I would love to see programmes about these things made and presented by the people pioneering them, not by BBC journalists, none of whom seem to have much understanding about any of these changes.

Over the thirteen years that I’ve been writing these blogs, and over the coming years, I’ll try and continue to write about some of these profound and positive changes that give hope in the face of the climate and biodiversity crisis. Many of the technologies and land use systems that so inspire me would make excellent television: they are very visual things, but I’ve never seen any of them given the coverage they deserve on television.

Wolfgang Blau, co-founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, tweeted on 22nd November that ‘We are worrying too much about the climate science deniers and not enough about the much, much larger part of the population that is very worried about global warming but doesn’t hear enough about the many emerging solutions’.

I couldn’t agree more!

  • (* Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, with data from the Energy Institute Statistical Review of World Energy 2023)

The News

BBC’s Broadcasting House

Apparently Radio 4’s Today programme has lost a million listeners in the last year, and presenter Nick Robinson puts this down to ‘news avoiders’. This may be true of some people, but, I think, many others may be avoiding the BBC for quite the opposite reason. It fails to properly cover the news. Typically the BBC puts two opposing views on in the belief that this represents balance. Often one of these points of view is a professional lobbyist from one of the Tufton Street ‘think tanks’, that are all funded by unaccountable sources, usually foreign billionaires and fossil fuel companies. They should not be referred to as ‘think tanks’, rather more accurate would be ‘propaganda units of fossil-fuel corporations and oligarchic power’ (but that is rather a mouthful!)

This BBC belief in balance is misguided. When pitting someone who consistently lies up against someone who rigorously sticks to verifiable facts and claiming this is a balanced view seems bonkers to me. (I did write a blog on this in 2014). It is the job of journalists to speak truth to power, and the BBC and much of the media are failing to do this.

The ways in which I absorb the news has changed much over the years. In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s sometimes I owned a TV but often I didn’t. I never regularly bought a daily newspaper but did subscribe to the Guardian Weekly, and I did listen to BBC World Service and Radio 4 quite a lot. Magazines such as Resurgence, Undercurrents, Vole, the UNESCO Courier, Ecologist and many others were very important to me. I lived and travelled in many countries and always tried to gauge how good local sources of information were, and often visited public libraries.  

I started using computers in universities and libraries in the late 1980’s and in 1996 bought my first computer and connected into the World Wide Web. The internet changed my life, or at least how I accessed information. I had long been interested in climate change, ecological destruction and the possibilities of turning these crises around through profoundly different lifestyles. I had experimented, living without electricity and visiting numerous projects working on renewables and sustainable ways of living. I had often travelled miles to visit projects. Now I could digitally access a vast number of projects and ideas very quickly. I started a long process to researching a book, then giving talks and running evening classes, and writing these blogs. Eventually I got my book written.

I joined Twitter in 2012 and it has become quite a big part of my interaction with the world of news and ideas. I could carefully select the academics, politicians, activists and journalists who I thought asked the best questions or provided the most truthful and factually accurate information. I made a point of following young climate activists from every corner of the World. I wanted to hear the voices of the poor and oppressed directly, as actors in their own right, not portrayed as helpless victims of circumstance, in need of western benevolence, as is so often the case in our media.

Since Elon Musk bought Twitter he has tried to swing it as a tool to present his own pro billionaire oligarchic views, and so is inevitably soft on Putin. He may have bought Twitter with the objective of silencing the voices of those pressing for climate action and global social justice. He may find that impossible. Twitter is a battle ground. Musk has lost a lot of money and done much damage, and he could yet be ousted. Many Twitter users would love to see the back of him.

Most of the newspapers in UK are owned by foreign billionaires and the client journalists they train then go on to be the main presenters of radio and television. I can’t see myself going back to watching TV, reading newspapers or listening to the radio unless there are some very big changes at the top of these organizations. The fact that Tory Party donor and Brexiteer Richard Sharp was made Chairman of the BBC highlights the bias of the BBC. The BBC would never make someone with my views Chair, so next week I’ll write a blog, painting a picture of the media I’d love to see, if only I had some influence over it!