Vast Moroccan solar power plant is hard act for Africa to follow
Ouarzazate - Rabat is building one of the world’s biggest solar power plants in southern Morocco on the edge of the desert, a project largely funded by the European Union.
It is a hard success for other African countries to match as they seek to implement a global agreement to combat climate change.
The huge 160-megawatt first phase of the Noor plant near Ouarzazate contrasts with efforts by other countries that focus on tiny roof-top solar panels to bring power to remote rural homes.
At Noor, curved mirrors totalling 1.5 million sq. metres — the size of about 200 football pitches — capture the sun’s heat. The sun’s rays bounce off the mirrors, warms a fluid that heats a vast tank of molten salt that can drive a turbine to generate electricity even after dark.
On the sprawling site, south of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, workers clear ground, build concrete pillars or clear off Saharan dust that dims sunshine. In Arabic, noor means “light”.
Morocco is showcasing Noor before talks among almost 200 counties in Marrakech about implementing a global deal to combat climate change.
“We hope we can be an inspiration,” said Mustapha Bakkoury, head of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen). Many African countries are pushing to boost economic growth to end poverty, while seeking greener energies.
The gleaming concentrated solar power plant is not economically competitive with cheaper fossil fuels but is a step to develop new technologies as prices for solar power fall sharply.
Morocco aims to obtain 52% of its electricity from clean energy — such as wind and solar — by 2030, up from 28% now.
“Unfortunately for many, it’s thought that renewables are to have a light bulb or light a school… This is to get away from the caricature of renewables,” Bakkoury said.
Once completed, Noor will cost $2.45 billion and generate 580 megawatts, enough power for a city of almost 2 million people. Morocco aims to expand at other desert regions and have 2 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2020 at a cost of $9 billion.
By contrast in East Africa, M-KOPA Solar has installed 400,000 rooftop solar panel systems costing $200 each on homes in the past five years to provide power for lighting and a radio. That completely bypasses the grid.
M-KOPA Chief Executive Officer Jesse Moore, whose company focuses most on Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, said rooftop solar systems were a breakthrough for Africa, where half the 1.2 billion people lack electricity.
He noted that Tesla founder Elon Musk was trying to sell solar systems to US homes.
“Elon Musk is trying to get people to leap off the grid in California. Over here on the other side of the planet, this is happening already,” he said
Unlike Morocco, other countries in Africa find it hard to attract investors to green projects, part of global efforts to limit climate change and floods, heat waves and droughts, which are a threat to Africa.
In addition to abundant sunshine, Morocco has had relative political stability in recent years and a predictable legal and banking system, helping it attract investors.
Even so, Morocco had a series of street protests after the death of a fishmonger, crushed to death in a garbage truck following a confrontation with police, in one of the biggest and longest challenges to authority since the 2011 “Arab spring”.
“Morocco is particularly suited for a large-scale project. It may not be suitable for all other countries,” said Roman Escolano, vice-president of the European Investment Bank (EIB).
The European Union, including the EIB, has funded about 60% of Noor. Masen issued Morocco’s first green bond, of $117.3 million, November 4th to help finance Noor.
Unusually for a desert, Morocco has water from the Atlas Mountains to help clean off dust. Also, in some countries, power lines from remote parts of the Sahara could be vulnerable to attacks. Noor’s pylons have red spikes to discourage intruders.