By Sandrine Ceurstemont
The minibus crosses the vast plateau on a newly paved road. Cracked fields stretch away towards the Moroccan desert to the south. Yet the barren landscape is no longer quite as desolate as it once was. This year it became home to one of the world’s biggest solar power plants.
Hundreds of curved mirrors, each as big as a bus, are ranked in rows covering 1,400,000 sq m (15m sq ft) of desert, an area the size of 200 football fields. The massive complex sits on a sun-blasted site at the foot of the High Atlas mountains, 10km (6 miles) from Ouarzazate – a city nicknamed the door to the desert. With around 330 days of sunshine a year, it’s an ideal location.
As well as meeting domestic needs, Morocco hopes one day to export solar energy to Europe. This is a plant that could help define Africa’s – and the world’s – energy future.
Of course, on the day I visit the sky is covered in clouds. “No electricity will be produced today,“ says Rachid Bayed at the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen), which is responsible for implementing the flagship project.
An occasional off day is not a concern, however. After many years of false starts, solar power is coming of age as countries in the sun finally embrace their most abundant source of clean energy. The Moroccan site is one of several across Africa and similar plants are being built in the Middle East – in Jordan, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The falling cost of solar power has made it a viable alternative to oil even in the most oil-rich parts of the world.
As well as meeting domestic needs, Morocco hopes one day to export solar energy to Europe.
Noor 1, the first phase of the Moroccan plant, has already surpassed expectations in terms of the amount of energy it has produced. It is an encouraging result in line with Morocco’s goal to reduce its fossil fuel bill by focusing on renewables while still meeting growing energy needs that are increasing by about 7% per year. Morocco’s stable government and economy has helped it secure funding: the European Union contributed 60% of the cost for the Ouarzazate project, for example.
The country plans to generate 14% of its energy from solar by 2020 and by adding other renewable sources like wind and water into the mix, it is aiming to produce 52% of its own energy by 2030. This puts Morocco more or less in line with countries like the UK, which wants to generate 30% of its electricity from renewables by the end of the decade, and the US, where President Obama set a target of 20% by 2030. (Trump has threatened to dump renewables, but his actions may not have a huge impact. Many policies are controlled by individual states and big companies have already started to switch to cleaner and cheaper alternatives.)