Rabat – If you drive east of Marrakech for several hours on the N9 highway, ascending into the High Atlas Mountains and then descending into the Sahara Desert, you will soon see a dazzling sight.
Sixteen kilometers north of where the highway runs through the town of Ouarzazate, a pillar of light rises from the desert floor. The Noor III Ouarzazate tower shines so brightly your eyes will hurt to look at it. And, if you did not already know what it was, you may briefly wonder if what you are seeing is real.
Solar power that works after sunset
The tower is part of Morocco’s plan to combat climate change by ambitiously increasing renewable energy sources as a share of the energy it produces. As of July 2019, the Noor Ouarzazate solar complex, which includes Noor I, II, and III, is the largest of its kind in the world. It produces 580 megawatts of solar electricity.
Unlike popular solar panels, which provide electricity only when the sun is out, the Noor complex is a thermal solar plant. Noor uses concentrated solar power (CSP) by storing heat, allowing it to continue to produce electricity for hours after sunset.
Hundreds of thousands of mirrors arranged on the desert floor reflect light to the tower and heat tubes of liquid salt, allowing the plant to store energy. Noor III can store power for 7.5 hours. That storage time is crucial, because the peak hours of electricity use happens in the evening, mostly after the sun has set.
Insufficient battery storage for the more popular photovoltaic solar is argued as the technology’s biggest shortfall. CSP is one way to tackle this challenge.
“What is special about this CSP is what we call the thermal energy storage systems … CSP is like a power plant with huge batteries,” said Youssef Stitou, a project manager with the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy (MASEN).
Morocco has plans to build a fourth section on the Noor Ouarzazate complex and a second 800 megawatt CSP tower near Midelt, 200 kilometers south of Fez.
Is Moroccan solar power a drop in the bucket?
Yet, solar power only makes up 2% of the electricity Morocco produces, according to the National Office of Electricity and Drinking Water (ONEE). Including the energy Morocco imports, solar power makes up an even smaller portion of the energy Moroccans consume.
Even though the country aims to source 42% of its “installed energy capacity” from renewables by 2020, that does not necessarily mean Morocco will shift its actual electricity production to 42% renewably-sourced.
By the end of 2017, ONEE reported that renewable sources made up 34% of Morocco’s ability to produce electricity, or installed capacity. But according to ONEE’s 2017 annual report, renewable sources made up only 16% of the electricity Morocco actually generated. Morocco did not fully exploit its promoted renewable capacity in actual production.
A large part of Morocco’s installed energy capacity comes from fossil fuels like coal and oil, which it imports. In addition, Morocco is still an energy-dependent country and imports 90% of its energy needs, the Moroccan energy ministry noted.
More people are buying refrigerators
Electricity is not the only kind of energy Morocco uses. For example, the country also consumes oil for transportation needs.
But electricity is an important part of Morocco’s energy use because as the population becomes wealthier, their electricity demands increase. People install lights, use electricity to charge cell phones, and buy kitchen appliances that run on electricity.
Annual electricity consumption continues to rise in Morocco, growing 7% per year between 2004 and 2014.
The average Moroccan, in 2012, also consumed 2.8 times as much electricity as the world’s average person, according to figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The high consumption highlights the benefit that producing more electricity from renewable sources would bring.
Renewables becoming more cost effective
The country is turning to renewables at a time when they are becoming increasingly cost effective. When Morocco awarded the contract for Noor III, it was paying $0.15 per kilowatt hour. However, when Morocco found a contractor to build its solar plant in Midelt, the project cost only $0.07 per kilowatt hour, according to Solar Power and Chemical Energy Systems.
“It is now cheaper to build renewable energy power plants than those based on fossil fuels, and this is increasingly evident in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Mohamed Jameel Al Ramahi, CEO of Masdar, an Emirati firm working on the Midelt project.
MASEN’s operations director, Abdelkader Himdi, noted that “the government does ‘not care’ which technologies go into making up the overall renewables mix, and is focused only on solutions to Morocco’s problems of being overly reliant on the importation of fossil fuels.”
In order to reach its goal of renewables making up 42% of its installed capacity by 2020 and 52% by 2030, Morocco plans to increase its solar energy, hydro energy, and wind energy capacity to two gigawatts each.
According to ONEE’s 2018 figures, solar has the furthest to go to reach that goal. Morocco had the capacity to produce 0.7 gigawatts of solar electricity, 1.2 gigawatts of wind electricity, and 1.8 gigawatts of hydroelectricity in 2018.
Only time will tell how soon Morocco will reach its renewables goals and if it will ramp up its production of renewable energy in line with its capacity. In the meantime, Morocco’s rhetoric sets the country as one of only two worldwide that will reach the suggested 1.5 degree Celsius emissions cap per the Paris Agreement suggestions, according to the Climate Action Tracker’s June update.