Morocco: Nearly 50% renewable electricity by 2020

morocco desert photo
CC BY 2.0 Tariq Daouda

Morocco has an awful lot of sun, an awful lot of desert and a high demand for imported fuel (94% of the country's energy needs are met by fossil fuel imports). And that's why, as reported over at The Guardian, the Moroccan government is moving ahead with a huge concentrated solar power plant near the desert city of Ouarzazate—one of four plants in total which, when complete, will have generating capacity of 580MW. Combined with the country's wind and hydro power efforts, Morocco's ambitious solar push will mean the country will source close to 50% of its electricity from renewable generation as early as 2020.

Phase 1 of the project, the 160MW Noor 1, is going to start generating electricity next month and includes a capacity for molten sand energy storage which will allow up to 3 hours of electricity generation after the sun goes down. Phases 2 and 3 will have the capacity for up to eight hours of storage, meaning that solar energy really could be used to power homes around the clock. There are also significant efforts underway to improve interconnectors between countries and even across continents, selling surplus electricity to neighboring countries and Europe.

Besides the sheer scale of such initiatives, what's impressive to me is how quickly they can be deployed. What other forms of energy could so drastically alter a country's energy mix in just a few short years? Not only should this be an encouraging sign for those of us who favor renewables. It should also give cause to would-be investors in traditional fossil fuel generating capacity. After all, anyone investing in a coal- or gas-fired power plant shouldn't just factor in how competitive these fuel sources are now—but how competitive will they be in 20 or 30 years time?

If the world does get serious about slashing fossil fuel subsidies (Morocco has already pledged to do just that), if policy makers do start ramping up emissions cuts, and if renewable energy costs continue to fall, even existing coal and gas plants will find themselves squeezed by newer, cleaner forms of energy that can be scaled up rapidly.

Interestingly, some analysts suggest this is happening already. In the US, for example, coal power plants are being retired earlier than expected due to a combination of increased competition from gas and renewables, as well as tighter regulation of emissions. Also, increasing amounts of solar and wind cause gas and coal plants to sit idle, significantly reducing their profitability and further giving an edge to the clean energy competition.

If this proves to be the case in North Africa too, Morocco's solar ambitions could help transform the energy system well beyond its own borders.

Morocco: Nearly 50% renewable electricity by 2020
A huge desert solar power plant will help turn Morocco into a clean energy giant.

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