Morocco sets example for region with major solar operation

27th Nov 2015

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

Construction workers in Ouarzazate, Morocco, are scrambling to put the finishing touches on phase one of what is poised to be the world’s largest solar array.

Noor 1, the first of four solar megaplants, with an energy capacity of 160 MW, is expected to start operating next month. It consists of 500,000 crescent-shaped solar mirrors, twelve metres high, placed in 800 rows. The technology it employs is called Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), where large mirrors concentrate the sun’s energy into a small area where it heats water via a heat transfer solution to turn a steam turbine.

Though more expensive and less expansive than photovoltaic (PV) panels, which are often seen on rooftops, CSP has the advantage of being able to produce energy even after the sun goes down, with a storage capacity of up to eight hours. Noor 1 has three hours of storage capacity, but Noor 2 and 3, which are expected to begin operating in 2017, will have up to eight hours. About $9 billion have already been invested into the project, which will provide 500MW of electricity once the Noor 2 and 3 phases are completed.

The project has been spearheaded by MASEN, the Moroccan Solar Energy Agency, a limited company with public funding, that has “three major missions: develop solar power plants, contribute to the development of a national expertise and act as a force of proposition on the regional and international plans.”

Morocco currently imports 94% of its energy, all of it from fossil fuels, and hopes that this project will help the nation reach its goal of receiving half its energy from renewables by 2020, with extra to export to Europe.

The project has been underway since 2011, initially taken on by Desertec, a partnership of investors with the aim of providing 15% of Europe’s power by renewables by 2050, but the partnership has since disassembled. Primary investors include the World Bank, European Investment Bank, and African Development Bank, but ACWA Power, a Saudi contractor, won the bid to lead the operations.

Morocco’s renewable goals will not all be achieved by solar; the nation aims to diversify through other energy investments. According to the Guardian, “Solar energy will make up a third of Morocco’s renewable energy supply by 2020, with wind and hydro taking the same share each.”

Interconnectors still need to be built for export to be possible, and the first priority is building cables to export to neighbouring Mauritania. The ultimate goal, as set out by King Mohammed VI, is Makkah. The interconnectors will have to avoid going through Spain, which has halted solar projects until the energy can be exported to France. The EU announced earlier this year that they plan to achieve 10% electricity interconnection by 2020.

Energy independence is an idea that many nations tout as an ideal goal, yet fossil fuels continue to receive exorbitant subsidies. Only once nations largely subsidize renewable forms of energy, will their citizens take their sustainability goals seriously. Environmentalists are excited to see that Morocco is taking a leading role in investing in a renewable energy future. With virtually no oil or gas of its own to speak of, the country has decided to invest sustainably, rather than continuing to seek out fossil fuels, which are on their way into obsolescence. Morocco is one of the few nations to have reached grid parity, “the moment when profitability requirements of PV investors are completely fulfilled with wholesale electricity prices,” according to PV Magazine.

Chile is one other nation to have reached that point and Honduras is close behind. By continuing to cultivate its strategic place between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, Morocco has set an example for neighbouring nations, that conversion is possible, and that even though oil may run rich in some places for now, that chapter in history is coming to a close. The nation is taking a long-term view of what a sustainable future looks like, and taking the steps necessary to realize such a goal; a method the rest of the world would do well to adopt.

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