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  • Mar 15, 2017

Morocco: A Shining Example of Going Solar

Zhihong Zhang 

When it comes to solar energy, the market looks up to China.  Last year China added 34,000 megawatts (MW) of solar electricity capacity, more than that of the United States, Japan, and Europe combined.  

Why then did China send a 30-member delegation last week on a study tour to Morocco to learn about solar energy?

What China is good at is solar photovoltaics (PV) – both at manufacturing PV panels and at building PV power plants.  Morocco has something that China does not have but is eager to learn: a technology called concentrated solar power (CSP).  CSP power plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and convert it into heat to drive steam turbines to generate electricity.  One of the advantages of the CSP technology is that the thermal energy concentrated in a CSP plant can be stored and used to produce electricity when the sun does not shine.

Last week Morocco’s Noor Solar Complex near the southern desert town of Ouarzazate hosted more than 100 government officials and utility managers from seven countries from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), industry experts, project developers, multilateral and bilateral development banks, as well as representatives from China, for the inaugural workshop of the MENA CSP Knowledge & Innovation Program (KIP).  Funded by the Clean Technology Fund (CTF) as part of the MENA CSP Investment Pan and implemented by the World Bank, the MENA CSP KIP is designed to support policy makers and practitioners across the region to better understand CSP technologies, markets, and financing and to build national capacities through targeted technical training, knowledge exchange and learning. 

In February 2016, Morocco launched the 160 MW first phase of its 580 MW Noor Solar Complex.  The Noor I plant covers 480 hectares of land with 500,000 cylindrical mirrors called parabolic troughs.  These solar mirrors are 12 meters high, produces 500,000 MWh of solar power a year, and are coupled with three hours of energy storage capacity.  The plant is operating at full capacity and provides electricity at USD 0.18 per kWh.  

As the host of last year’s UN Climate Change Conference (i.e., COP22), the Kingdom of Morocco has been providing the much needed leadership to fight against climate change.  The Royal Government has set ambitious targets of increasing its share of renewable energy to 42 percent by 2020 and to 52 percent by 2030.  To reduce fossil fuel dependence, Morocco launched the Moroccan Solar Plan in 2009, aiming to build 2,000 MW of solar capacity by 2020.  And they have put their plan into action, with remarkable results on the ground.

Noor II and Noor III are currently under construction.  The Noor II plant will use the same technology as Noor I, with an installed capacity of 200 MW and with seven hours of energy storage capability. 

Noor III will have an installed capacity of 150 MW, but it will employ a different CSP technology – a central tower with salt receivers – plus seven to eight hours of energy storage capability. Both Noor II and Noor III are expected to start producing electricity in 2018 and will provide electricity at less than USD 0.16 per kWh.

The Noor Solar Complex does not stop here.  A fourth phase is also under way for a 70 MW PV installation.  When fully completed, the Noor Solar Complex at Ouarzazate will be the world's largest multi-technology solar power plant with 580 MW of installed capacity and an overall investment of more than USD 2 billion.  In addition to providing clean, renewable electricity to more than one million homes, job creation has been valued highly by the Moroccan government and the Moroccan people.  The ongoing construction of Noor II and Noor III, I was told during the site visit, is providing employment opportunities to 4,000 Moroccans.  Aside from Noor Ouarzazate, other solar projects in Morocco are under planning and development, turning the kingdom into a true solar power.

The Clean Technology Fund CTF) has been instrumental in financing the three phases of the Noor CSP plants.  In total, the CTF has provided USD 435 million of highly concessional finance for the three CSP plants, with additional financing provided by the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and other international financial institutions (IFIs).  Due to the involvement of the CTF and IFIs, the cost of capital for developers was significantly reduced, thereby lowering the overall cost of electricity generated.  The economic as well as environmental and social benefits from solar electricity are already benefiting Moroccan residents, businesses, and communities and will continue to do so in many years and decades to come.

The Noor site visit on March 8 was made all the more meaningful as we paid tribute to women working in the field of sustainable energy on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2017. 

The power of solar is endless, as is our ability to about solar power.  Participants at the MENA CSP KIP workshop may soon forget what the presenters said, but they will always remember what they witnessed at the Noor Solar Complex. 

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