Vast Moroccan solar power plant is hard act for Africa to follow

Sunday 13/11/2016
A thermosolar power plant at Noor II Ouarzazate, Morocco. (Reuters)

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.