Morocco's green revolution

Morocco's green revolution

Paolo Ribichini
Rabat depends 90% on foreign imports. Renewable source facilities and power plants are currently under study and constitute a crucial resource for the country. Michael Taylor, an analyst at the International Agency for Renewable Energies, IRENA, tells us about it


In Morocco the Ouarzazate region is famous for the film "Lawrence of Arabia" and the TV series "Game of Thrones". But within a few years this sparsely populated area will be remembered first and foremost for a pharaonic work: The Noor-Ouarzazate solar power station, capable of providing energy to more than a million people. Its construction began in 2013 and should be completed by 2018. It will cover an area of ​​30 sq km (the area of a small city) will produce 580 megawatts of energy and will rank as one of the largest and most powerful solar plants in the world, second only, in terms of energy produced, to the BHE Renewables Solar Star power plant in Southern California (586 megawatts). The entire project will cost a total 9 billion dollars, 2.2 billion euros of which will come from international funds, including the World Bank and the European Investment Bank. At the beginning of the year the first job lot was already operational, with an output – operating up to speed – of 160 megawatts.

"An opportunity for Morocco"

Rabat will invest $40 million in the Energy sector, of which $30 million in renewable sources

"Morocco can boast lots of wind and lots of sun, but the country lacks significant deposits of fossil fuels," explains Michael Taylor, analyst at the International Agency for renewable energies, IRENA. "The latest technologies for turning solar energy and onshore wind into electricity, thanks to a substantial reduction in production and installation costs, are now the most economical solution to meet the growth in demand and can be used in providing electricity to less accessible residential areas. This also creates an opportunity for economic and social development for Morocco. "Ouarzazate will be a solar power plant that not only uses PV technology, but also and aboveall an innovative system for turning the sun's energy into electricity: Concentrated solar power (CSP). Instead of traditional PV panels, with CSP curved mirrors are used that concentrate the sun's rays onto piping, in which a special synthetic oil circulates. This in turn heats up the water in the boilers, generating steam that sets the turbines in motion. The heat not used is stored in special molten salt containers to be released after sunset, allowing the facilities to continue to operate even after dark, for a period of from three to eight hours.

No batteries, but at a higher price

The advantage of this technology, which has been on the market since 2007, is that it enables night-time energy storage without requiring batteries. All the same, there is still some doubt as to the actual possibility of replacing PV with CSP technology. The reason lies in the cost per kilowatt/hour produced: if at the beginning of the decade PV and CSP cost the same (21 US cents), PV is now cheaper (13 cents against the 15-19 of CSP). This is due to the collapse in panel and accumulator production costs. However, the spread of CSP will depend on the evolution of storage technologies and the cost of the same. To understand what the future holds, "it should be considered that solar PV and CSP are at two very different stages of development," Taylor explains. "The total capacity of PV installations at the end of 2015 reached 219 gigawatts, while CSP could only attain 5 gigawatts. The cost-cutting prospects are more likely for CSP, especially if the global market expands, as will happen, what with China’s current interest in investing in this technology." The higher energy production costs using CSP are, according to Taylor, due to a smaller number of projects achieved so far. "But we shouldn’t see these two technologies as competing against each other," the analyst states "They can be complementary: when used together they offer a balanced solution. CSP’s low energy storage cost capacity means it can be released into the grid when PV loses its efficiency", aboveall at night.

Quest for energy independence

Morocco's Ouarzazate power plant will play a key role in reducing the country's foreign energy dependency, today standing at 90% of the entire energy consumed by Moroccan businesses and citizens. The Rabat government’s objective is to make sure that half the country’s energy requirements are satisfied via renewable sources by 2030. Here the government is focusing on both CSP as well as five PV sites, with the aim of attaining the production of more than 2,000 megawatts from renewable energy sources, accounting for 14% of the country's current energy capacity, this to meet the needs of a population of 34 million people and their growing demand for energy (that increases 6.7% annually). Apart from solar energy the country is also investing in wind power. One of the main stations that convert wind into energy is located at Tarfaya, constituting Africa's largest wind farm. Then there is the facilities at Akhfennir, 200 km from Laayoune. Both parks, part of the National Energy Plan, were built at great speed and are already operational. The foundation stone of the Tarfaya plant was laid in 2010 and work was completed in late 2014. Today the plant can count on 131 turbines spread over 10 thousand hectares of land and produces 300 megawatts, while the Akhfennir facilities exploits 117 turbines to produce 200 megawatts. The wind and solar projects stand alongside the country’s decades long production of hydroelectric energy, that accounts for more than 19% (2 gigawatts) of Morocco’s energy demands, as laid down in the 2012 CIA World Factbook.

Benefits to the economy and the environment

Morocco is aiming for a 13% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, a figure scheduled to reach 32% by 2030, the intent being to fulfil 42% of the nation’s energy requirements, as stated in the commitments submitted to the Cop21 UN climate conference held last year in Paris. According to data provided by the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN), this translates into a reduction of 3.7 million tons of CO2 per year. In addition, according to the Climate Investment Fund, the operation of the Ouarzazate plant will immediately lead to a 44% drop in electricity costs throughout northern Africa. Indeed, "with a continuous reduction of costs for both solar PV and CSP, countries with excellent solar resources have the potential to seamlessly integrate very large amounts of different kinds renewable energy with the use of CSP," concludes Taylor.
In short, the "renewable" revolution in Morocco will be the best calling card the country can bring to the COP22 climate change negotiations, scheduled to be held in Morocco at Marrakesh next 7 to 18 November. Moreover, Rabat will invest 40 billion dollars in the energy sector over the next 15 years, 30 billion of which in renewable source power plants.