Beaming in the desert, 10 kilometers away from the mountainous city of Ouarzazate, lies Noor, the world’s biggest solar power station. Spread across an area of some 30 square kilometers, the first-of-its kind complex is expected to generate 580MW and power more than 1 million homes when fully completed in 2017. The plant is part of a bold policy initiative envisioned by King Mohammed VI back in 2009 aimed at breaking Morocco’s reliance on energy imports and speeding up the pace of green energy development. The kingdom, North Africa’s only nation whose soil is completely barren of fossil fuels, spends upwards of $6 billion every year to import electricity from neighboring Spain. Noor is poised to change all that.
Relying on an innovative technology called Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), Noor’s 800 rows of mirrors and lenses will reflect the sun’s rays on a network of pipes filled with a saline solution. The $9 billion plant, albeit considerably more expensive than your run of the mill photovoltaic cell, has the added advantage of working for hours after the sun goes down – engineers estimate that the plant will have virtually no downtimes, since it will be able to produce energy for three hours after sunset and store energy for up to eight hours of darkness. The energy complex was slated to open in December when the first 160MW segment would have come online. However, the inauguration was postponed.
The long game: from Mounir Majidi to Nareva
Presenting Morocco’s bid for the COP22, slated to take place in Marrakech in November 2016, King Mohammed VI unveiled plans to accelerate the de-carbonization of the kingdom’s GDP. The share of renewables in Morocco’s 2030 energy mix will grow from an estimated 45% to 52%, one of the world’s most ambitious pledges. In order to realize this objective, Morocco aims to generate an additional 2GW from solar, 2GW from wind and 2GW from hydro. Building almost 6GW worth of renewables is no small feat – for the sake of comparison, the US has only built approximately 220GW to date. The King hopes this transition will transform Morocco into a net exporter of energy for the region, from Rabat all the way to Mecca. However, Europe’s aging infrastructure is unlikely to be upgraded in time to receive solar powered electricity. “We believe that it’s possible to export energy to Europe but first we would have to build the interconnectors which don’t yet exist,” said Maha el-Kadiri, spokeswoman of Moroco’s solar energy agency Masen.
While critics might dismiss this pledge as a publicity stunt, the facts on the ground show that if anything, Morocco may be arriving late in the game. Environmental degradation already swallows up between 2% and 4% of potential GDP and devastating floods caused by overgrazing are a direct cause behind the creeping yearly expansion of the Sahara desert. Since Morocco’s population has more than doubled over the past 40 years, mismanaged farming and firewood harvesting have degraded soil cover, rendering agriculture more costly. Therefore, any reduction in the country’s energy bill can be put to good use, notably towards relieving the social costs of anthropogenic climate change.
In order to draw in foreign funds, Morocco passed a law liberalizing the renewables sector , which in turn increased investment and made projects like Noor possible. “The law was crucial in allowing for the development of renewables in Morocco”, says Anne Lapierre, head of energy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Norton Rose Fulbright, a law firm.
Even the King himself joined the bonanza, investing his own money into bringing to fruition the transition to renewables and instilling confidence in the project Mounir Majidi, personal secretary to the sovereign and administrator of the royal family’s fortune has staked a considerable part of the assets he manages into the transition. Nareva, a private company owned by the Majidi-controlled National Investment Society (SNI), is developing a string of energy projects worth some 1150 MW, including Africa’s biggest wind power plant. Perched on the Atlantic coast, at Tarfaya, the 300MW Tarec wind farm is a $600 million investment that offsets 900,000 tons of CO2 per year thanks to its 131 wind turbines. Along with Enel and Siemes, Nareva is also involved in the development of a 850MW project, raising the company’s total portfolio to more than 1GW, making the SNI responsible for more than half the country’s wind power quota.
The wider lesson Morocco has to offer is that, as difficult and expensive the transition to renewables might seem, strong leadership and bold initiatives can fill the gap between what is needed and what is possible. While harnessing the Sahara’s sunlight is by no means a new idea, Noor is the first massive scale project to take its roots there. Just a few years ago, in 2013, a previous initiative to generate 100GW by 2050 and export it to Europe failed to get financial support and was dismissed for being “utopian”.
However, Noor’s completion – the first component of the failed 2013 initiative – along with the clear signal sent by the recently signed COP21 agreement, specifically, that the world is placing fossil fuels in the past, could put back on the table the vision of transforming the Sahara into the world’s biggest generator.
Image credit: AP