King Mohammed IV would like to one day bring his electricity to Mecca. More pragmatically, he will have to "settle" for selling it to Spain, reversing the energy flow that sees his country as dependent on foreign suppliers for 98% of its needs. The goal is increasingly closer, given that in his country, Morocco – in Africa, the continent set to invest over $57 billion in renewables by 2020 – will open the largest solar power plant in the world: "Noor 1", light in Arabic, as the size of 35 football fields, which in Ouarzazate, with its 500,000 mirrors in a maze of 800 aisles, will fill the Sahara desert in the same strip of sand near the Atlas mountain range famous for hosting blockbuster sets such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Gladiator. The project, however, has not only an economic value, but also a geopolitical one. Morocco, the only country in the region lacking fossil resources, is set to become the largest producer in the area of renewable energy: a choice that could overturn the balance of the Mediterranean at a time in which the historic Maghrebi owners of the gas (Algeria) and oil (Libya) fields pay the price of instability. The surplus energy could then assist the flow of investments to the Kingdom from the entire world of companies seeking cheap labor and a smaller energy bill. It is no coincidence that Morocco’s Minister of the Environment Hakima el-Haite recently pointed out: "We are not an oil producing country. We import 94% of our energy, which has serious consequences for our state budget. We also have the weight of fossil fuel subsidies, so when we heard about the potential of solar power, we thought: why not?”
In the age of the masters of renewables
Economist Frank Wouters is convinced that “the future energy system will be more decentralized and democratic that the current one.” The former Deputy Director of the International Renewable Energy Agency, IRENA, points out: “We are in a situation of rapidly changing energy paradigms on a global level. Firstly, we see the emergence of cost-effective technologies to tap into widely available oil and shale gas reserves, opening new avenues for many countries as an alternative to imports. Secondly, we have observed the rapid decline in the cost of renewable energy technologies, thanks to which these now appear more competitive than conventional ones. Other than the cost, solar panels (and, to a certain extent, also wind turbines) are modular and can be installed very quickly. Thirdly, we are seeing the effects of climate change and the global agreement reached at COP21 in Paris, in December 2015, will contribute to the accelerated de-carbonization of our energy system. Finally, the integration of ICT in our energy system will support smart solutions for guaranteeing technologies for energy efficiency and energy production within the reach of businesses and individuals.” In Marrakech, next November, COP22 will be held, and it will be first event, in fact, that, following COP21, will have to make an assessment on the compliance with the agreement reached in December 2015 in Paris. During COP21, Morocco was included among the benchmark countries according to level of investments and operations aimed at developing sustainability: it is no coincidence that tenders have been launched to build a series of green power plants that are capable of producing 2.6 GWHz of power.
“Morocco”, adds Frank Wouters, “has long understood that it needs a more sustainable and flexible energy system to strengthen economic growth. Its heavy dependence on imported fossil fuels weighs down the trade balance. We also keep in mind the fact that Morocco is well equipped with solar and wind resources and that the cost of these technologies has fallen dramatically over the past 2 years. Consequently, it was a natural choice for the country to embark on an ambitious strategy towards renewables.”
The challenge for the big and the developing countries
From the Paris summit the King of Morocco summoned both rich and emerging countries to their responsibilities: "The time for doubt and skepticism is no longer allowed. This calls for a genuine and inclusive international consensus that necessarily passes from our support to an effective appropriation of action by developing countries to protect the climate”. From this perspective comes the solar plant of Ouarzazate and the goal set by Morocco to produce 42% of its energy demand from renewable sources by 2020, reducing CO2 emissions by 2030. By 2017 Noor2 and Noor3 will follow Noor1, so as to produce energy in quantities that provide electricity to approximately 1 million people, thanks to an installed capacity of 580 MW. Compared with other existing large solar plants in the world, Morocco has chosen a more economically costly path by not following the photovoltaic trend. The plant, in fact, will produce energy by using 3 different latest generation technologies, which are different from the more expensive photovoltaic technology: 160 MW solar concentration system; a 300 MW thermal solar plant with parabolic mirrors; a series of parabolic cylinder collectors totaling 150 MW. The mirrors, in fact, accumulate the radiation from the sun, which shines here continuously, and activate steam turbines that produce energy during the night. A hydroelectric plant and a wind farm will then be built, not far away. The power plant in Ouarzazate, when operational, will produce electricity for 20 hours per day and, above all, will store energy for 8 hours, overcoming the greatest problem with renewables (intermittency) and, in the near future, ensuring supplies 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
Looking to Europe
The commitment made by the European countries at EU offices (increasing production from renewable energy to 20%) could provide a boost to Morocco’s business, given that Noor will produce half of the national demand. There will be excess energy that should be very attractive for Europe given that the aim is to produce a single KW at a price of somewhere between 7 and 8 cents. In this light, Morocco looks especially to Spain, which currently provides 32% of the country’s energy. The plant, which some are already calling “the Oasis of Renewables”, was built by the Saudi company, Acwa Power, for a total cost of €10.5 billion, mostly funded by the World Bank. But the return on investment could be faster if the interconnection, aside from Spain, could travel, on the one side, to Italy and on the other side along the coast towards Tunisia, and, above all, if the TuNur project (the partnership between a group of Tunisian investors and the English company Nur Energie to construct a new interconnection cable in the Mediterranean Sea, aimed directly to our country) were to see light. “Morocco”, concludes Wouters, “must first meet its needs. But given its excellent solar and wind resources, it could become a major exporter of cheap electricity in the near future. But a lot will also depend on the availability of infrastructure. There is already a connection via cable in the sea between Morocco and Spain and its capacity will be extended, then the country could also look to the rest of Europe”. The challenge in underway.