a) The Tunisian Solar Plan: a renewal of the trend towards dependency as strategic orientation
In 2015,7 Tunisia launched the updated version of the Tunisian Solar Plan (its French acronym is PST), an operational plan that sits within the country’s energy transition strategy. The plan was originally published in 2009 and aims to increase the ratio of renewable energy from 3 per cent in 2016 to 30 per cent in 2030,8 which requires the production of an additional 3,815 megawatts (MW) from renewable energy. According to the PST, 46 per cent of new renewable energy will be produced by wind turbines, 39.6 per cent by solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, 11.8 per cent by concentrated solar power9 and 2.6 per cent by biomass.10 The PST’s intermediary goals were updated after a December 2017 conference on accelerating the implementation of renewable energy projects.11 This policy follows a regional – if not global – trend towards the expansion of renewable energy, partly through public–private partnerships (PPPs), justified by the lack of sufficient governmental resources to build power plants.12 To give one example, Morocco has been following a similar path since 2009, when its solar plan was presented by King Mohammed VI.13 However, the promotion of PPP as a substitute to public procurement and public debt is misguided as the PPP is a kind of securitization of a public project whereby profits are privatized and losses are socialized.14 The PST requires around 8 billion euros of investment over the 2015–2030 period, including 6.3 billion for equipment and 1.7 billion for the development of the power grid.15 According to the plan, two-thirds of this funding will come from private sources, predominantly foreign investment, and one-third from public sources. Most of these financing needs focus on importing knowledge and expertise (through technologies, equipment and patents) and will accelerate Tunisia’s current path of dependency. This will materialize through the deepening of Tunisia’s foreign debt in order to finance this imported technology, which is subject to monopoly conditions and intellectual property rights. In this context, the PST is designed in such a way that it reinforces power dynamics whereby a Southern country needs to borrow more so as to import Northern technology and knowledge production in order to transition to renewable energy. Through this plan, Tunisia is continuing to promote an economic model that is led by foreign investment as the only way of financing its development. While some parts of the funding needed for Tunisia’s renewable energy plan may come through foreign investment (or even climate finance/debt), no efforts have been made to explore ways of producing and controlling the knowledge necessary to achieve some parts of the PST in order to reduce both knowledge and capital dependency on industrialized countries.
b) The 2015-12 law: liberalization, privatization and the lack of state control
Since 2009, steps have been made towards progressively liberalizing the Tunisian energy sector: law n°2009-7, dated 9 February 2009, introduced private sector electricity production from renewable energies for firms’ self-production.16 This was followed by decree n° 2009-2773, detailing the conditions of surplus selling to the national company STEG. A big step was taken in 2015, with law n° 2015-1217, relating to the production of electricity from renewable resources. This law opened up the power grid to private companies, enabling them to produce energy, primarily for domestic use and for exportation thereafter, through an authorization regime (for projects of between 1 and 10MW) and a concession regime (for projects of more than 10MW). These liberalization measures, which put an end to STEG’s monopoly, aim to make the regulatory framework more attractive for foreign investors.18 Other later decrees and regulations specify conditions and procedures for the achievement of these projects,19 including connection to the national grid20 and providing standard contracts for firms to start producing under the mentioned regimes. In this context, the idea that the energy sector functions most efficiently when it is managed by private companies, as opposed to the ineffectiveness of public management, still prevails today in Tunisia, despite a serious lack of independent studies on the impact of liberalization policies on the electricity production sector.21 The process of privatization, initiated decades ago, has not provided enough evidence that this point of view is in fact correct.
As a matter of fact, the claim that private companies provide better services for a lower price has not been confirmed by the facts. On the contrary, while PPPs are sought after by states for development reasons, private companies tend to prioritize corporate profit above all under these contracts, and this aspect of divergent interests has often been overlooked. These partnerships often induce increased prices, along with labour violations, declining service quality and a failure to implement an ambitious climate strategy. The Tunisian law relative to PPPs, enacted in late 2015, does not provide sufficient tools for the state to address the negative impacts of these types of projects, and to ensure the protection of public and citizens’ interests. No right to compensation for affected communities is envisaged, and neither are mechanisms for government control and supervision – to prevent green grabbing, for instance.22 Moreover, civil society and local communities have limited access to information about PPP proposals and are not encouraged to participate in discussions.23 Therefore, PPPs raise financial issues for the government, as much as they represent a threat to the efficient delivery of services and genuine democratic control over projects.
c) The influence of international interests in the context of the policymaking process
The energy transition in Tunisia is being promoted by international actors, some of whom are connected to previous projects that have aimed to develop renewable energy in northern Africa for export to Europe. One of them, Desertec, was centred around an ‘unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources from the Global South to the rich industrialized North, maintaining a profoundly unjust international division of labour’, as Hamza Hamouchene has described.24 Comparable to Desertec, Nur Energy (a UK-based company) and Zammit Group (based in Malta) are the main stakeholders of the TuNur project, which aimed in its early days to establish a giant solar power plant in the region of Kebili, with the purpose of exporting the produced electricity to Europe through cables under the sea. This project organized a powerful lobby that sought to obtain the inclusion of provisions relating to exports in the renewable energy legislation, against resistance from the state electricity monopoly.25 The role of international actors in influencing domestic policies has been well-documented in the field of renewable energy, especially as regards the German–Tunisian relationship in this sector. Germany, which is a pioneer in the area, sees in Tunisia a high potential to be tapped. Accordingly, since the 2012 German–Tunisian partnership on energy, Germany has been providing technical and financial support through industrial investments and the establishment of institutes and foundations in Tunisia. The latter seek, among other things, to influence political parties by promoting ‘green’ development ideas.26 These actions, carried out in the context of bilateral cooperation, have had some repercussions in relation to the Tunisian regulatory framework.
In fact, some recommendations made by the German development agency, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), seem to have anticipated some of the measures contained in the 2015 law. The official motives of German cooperation are said to be beneficial for the development of Tunisia, particularly in relation to employment.27 Germany’s actions in Tunisia fit into the context of European Union (EU) activities in this area. A 2015 communication by the European Commission about the strategy for an Energy Union clearly expresses the European Union’s (EU’s) wish to encourage and develop renewable energies, notably through international cooperation with non-EU countries.28 This would be done within the framework of the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), which was established in the early 1990s. In fact, the European effort to involve Tunisia in this process dates back to 2013, when the country was approached by the ECT secretariat, through the mediation of the German embassy, to join the treaty within the context of its ‘MENA Project’ of expansion in the region. The country’s membership of the ECT is still under discussion.29 The ECT includes provisions on foreign investments in the energy sector, including in relation to investor–state dispute settlement (ISDS). This tool gives corporations the power to sue governments when they consider that states’ policies are detrimental to their profits, even if those policies aim to foster an energy transition or social rights that are in the public interest. ISDS claims have already delivered billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to big corporations and the mere threat of ISDS therefore constrains states in their policy design, thus interfering with democratic processes.30
Following the principles set out in the ECT, the EU is seeking to deepen liberalization in order to standardize the Tunisian legislative framework through negotiations around the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) (ALECA being the French acronym). This liberalization offensive would undermine the state’s capacity to regulate – sometimes against investors’ interests – and therefore would facilitate the introduction of European investors (who benefit from the EU’s extensive subsidy programmes) into the Tunisian market. This would eventually open the way for exports, thus ensuring energy security for Europe, rather than for Tunisia.31 For European companies, accessing the Tunisian market means increased cost-effectiveness and competitiveness because of lower salary and fiscal charges and the transfer of environmental costs. The pressure exercised on Tunisia, and the lack of consultation of civil society in the DCFTA negotiation process, have been already pointed out.32
d) Progress of, and resistance to, the privatization process
Prior to law n°2015-12, the production of electricity – excluding the self-production regimes – was the monopoly of the public utility company, STEG. This state-owned company had already embarked on several investments to develop the production of electricity from renewable energy. For instance, two wind power plants belonging to STEG were established in the north of Tunisia before 2015: a 54MW plant in Sidi Daoud and a 190MW plant in Bizerte.33 However, the company’s executive considers these projects very expensive. In an interview with Nawaat magazine, Taher Aribi, former CEO of STEG, stated: ‘To invest in such projects, we are obliged to sign debt agreements. Clean electricity production projects cost three times as much as a conventional plant. Our financial capacity is fragile for investment, borrowing or guarantee remittances’.34
Since the liberalization of renewable electricity production under the authorizations and concessions regimes, the proportion of private investment has increased. According to 2018 figures, 42.5 per cent of the electric power coming from planned wind and solar energy projects will be produced as a result of PPPs. However, it should be mentioned that not all of those power plants are operating yet.35 In parallel, STEG has been developing its two PV power plants in Tozeur (Tozeur I and Tozeur II), of 10MW each.
Because of the lack of available information on the progress of renewable energy projects, it is hard to define to what extent the sector is currently developed, and in which conditions. For instance, the information published on the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy website states that ‘in 2017, STEG began building the first 10MW PV plant in Tozeur [Tozeur 1] which has been put into operation on 10 March 2021. A second 10MW extension plant at the same location [Tozeur 2] has been put into service on 24 November 2021.’36 However, a press article issued on 5 November 2021 reports that the operationalization of the plants is just starting. The article mentions that the delay was due to financial issues faced by Tozeur 1 and to postponements in the shipping of equipment related to the COVID-19 pandemic for Tozeur 2.37 Both plants are now operational and have been officially inaugurated in March 2022.
Another power plant has been built in Tataouine and was ready for operationalization in June 2020. However, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT)38 has blocked the plant’s connection to the national grid,39 claiming that the process will eventually lead to the privatization of STEG. This situation has not been resolved to date,40 with the plant waiting to be connected to the national power grid while negotiations with the trade union go on. In July 2020,41 the Minister of Industry42, Mines and Energy posted on Facebook a message accusing the General Federation of Electricity and Gas (FGEG), a branch of the UGTT, of ‘sabotage’ against the operationalization of the 10MW PV power plant in Tataouine, which has been built under the authorization regime by the Tunisian Enterprise of Petroleum Activities (ETAP), a public company and a subsidiary of ENI (an Italian oil company). However, the FGEG’s opposition to the project needs to be read in the context of its opposition to privatization in general. As a matter of fact, the UGTT’s opposition to the PPPs in particular, and to privatization in the production of electricity in general, is not new.
As early as January 2014, the FGEG spoke out against the bill prepared by the Ministry of Industry and adopted by the government which would eventually become the 2015-12 law. It criticized the decision-making process behind the bill, asserting that it was drawn up without involving the UGTT, or STEG’s executives and engineers. The FGEG’s secretary-general noted that the project was launched in haste and without referring to studies prepared in advance or to a general national energy strategy. On 27 March 2018, a call for the non-privatization of the electricity production sector was reiterated by the FGEG. Later, on 26 February 2020, a few months before the blocking of the Tataouine power plant by the UGTT, the government issued a decree authorizing the creation of self-production companies for the production of electricity from renewable energies and defining the conditions for the transportation of electricity and the sale of excess energy to STEG. The FGEG secretary-general43 then expressed the categorical opposition of the Federation to the privatization of electricity production in Tunisia. These policies were depicted by the FGEG as paving the way for private and foreign investment, favouring investors’ profit over the public utility (STEG). The FGEG had stated that it would protest against this orientation because the production of electricity by private individuals and its direct sale to customers would disrupt the electricity network and impact the distribution of electricity, making it inaccessible to certain categories of the population. It also rejects the commodification of electricity, which affects national security and STEG’s public status.