Noor Lets the Light in Morocco

By Salia Hadidi

On February 4th, Morocco inaugurated the first segment of its solar thermal power station Noor I, in the town of Ouarzazate. Currently spreading through 988 acres, the development of the next phases, Noor II, III and IV will amount to 7643 acres (picture a surface roughly equal to 7643 soccer pitches), making it the largest solar plant in the world. This project definitely represents a reversal for a country with a long history of fossil fuels imports (currently making up 94% of its energy use). This shift towards renewable energy comes as a positive outlook; as we hope that the eventual emission reductions will offset some of the cost impact that environmental degradation has had over Morocco’s GDP. However, it seems as though the Moroccan project does not solely revolve around national interests but rather fits conveniently into the plans of more powerful players.

In fact, the Moroccan project was initially a part of a bigger initiative known as Desertec. The latter was launched as a Mediterranean non-profit foundation in 2009, with the main objective of providing renewable energy from the world’s deserts. The former inspired and led to the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii): a global conglomerate of influential companies such as E.ON, Munich Re and Deutsche Bank aiming to provide “around 20 per cent of Europe’s electricity by 2050 through a vast network of solar and wind farms stretching right across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.” However, tensions and value conflicts between the two programs, such as the possibility for Europe to buy cheap solar panels elsewhere led to their dissociation in 2013, with Dii shrinking from 17 partners to only three by the end of 2014.

One of the remaining partners is Noor I’s major shareholder, a Saudi company named Acwa Power (in a consortium with Spain’s TSK and Aries) which owns a 70% stake versus 20% for the publicly funded company Masen (Moroccan Agency for solar energy) and which will be  responsible for Noor’s next two phases. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has expressed, four years ago, a vivid interest in developing solar energy through calls for project submissions and foreign investments, in order to attain 41 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2032. Skepticism arose as the motivation for this shift seems to be about filling the gap created by an over-consumption of oil, which is currently hurting the country’s exports and for which their domestic supply will not be sufficient in the long run. Saudi’s main long-term objective is to remain an energy exporter by offering the lowest prices in solar, which seems to be tainted with economic schemes rather than a genuine effort to fight global warming. After all, the renewables industry represents a very attractive business opportunity for many. As for the funding of the consortium led by Acwa Power, it partially comes from the World Bank and the European Investment Bank amongst other well established global organizations.

Furthermore, the Moroccan project, as part of the aforementioned Desertec, was advertised as an export project. However, the Spanish government had displayed a lack of support for an additional undersea cable (needed to transmit energy to Europe) under the pretext of environmental concerns, thus redirected the project’s intent toward national usage for Morocco. However, as Arthur Nelsen claims in The Guardian, “Spain has itself prohibited new solar projects because of a lack of interconnectors to transmit the energy to France. The EU has set a target of ensuring that 10% of each member country’s power can be transported abroad by cable by 2020”.  As a result, this seems to question the real reason behind developing sustainable means of energy as its purpose in Morocco is only considered to be the “default option” rather than the primary intent of this project. Now, the real question is; once the interconnections between affected European countries are built, will Noor’s supply of energy remain in the hands of Moroccans?

Altogether, a feeling of déjà-vu settles in, as previous power dynamics centered on the energy sector seem to repeat under the façade of clean energy with the Moroccan solar plant.

Altogether, a feeling of déjà-vu settles in, as previous power dynamics centered on the energy sector seem to repeat under the façade of clean energy with the Moroccan solar plant. The scenario is portrayed by the interdependence between the Western countries and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, as Western countries’ economy hinges on the access to the Gulf’s markets and cheap oil, the Gulf is reliant on the West’s expertise and security assistance.Thus, issues arise over the future governance of this Moroccan project, as the real faces pulling the strings of the Moroccan solar plant are nobody directly involved with Morocco.

Finally, the dangers of outside entities controlling national projects, become more evident when considering geopolitical issues. Indeed, as international projects centred on renewable energy flourish in Africa, the instability in some of these countries is still a reality which needs to be considered. After all, being sustainable also involves taking into consideration the well-being of the affected population. Hence, projects of similar scale and involving global players should not be developed at the detriment of local residents, by creating and/or ignoring plausible conflicts. Recent projects such as genetically modified cotton crops (Bt Cotton) in Africa, advertised as sustainable, are an example of such problems. In fact, Bill Gates was even claiming that GMO’s were the solution to fight hunger and poverty in Africa. However, Burkina Faso which has the highest number of GMO crops in Africa has decided to quit on Bt Cotton. To see why, farmers were initially very enthusiastic about the initiative while Monsanto Company (the American agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation providing the seeds) was growing their revenues. Unfortunately, the cotton obtained was of very poor quality despite its high output, leading altogether to a lower yield, and hurting the crop diversity. As a result, national cotton companies’ profits heavily decreased, communities lost their revenue and production of Bt Cotton was stopped. Therefore, it seems that healthy long-term rewards would be more conceivable through local initiatives, by putting the affected communities in charge of coordinating their own projects as opposed to outside partners. Given that Noor is mainly financed by a majority of foreign initiatives and companies such as Saudi Arabia, Spain, and China, the welfare of Ouarzazate’s inhabitants and their reliance on agriculture might have been overlooked in order to set the stage for the operations of these foreign investors.

However, hope can be maintained that Morocco’s leading idea will above all trigger other local developments in Africa, as an organic process rather than a source of cheap energy for developed countries. After all, the African continent is still the most exposed to climate change while being the smallest emitter of greenhouse gases. For now, Noor will surely help Morocco achieve its promises made at the Paris Conference, which is to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 32% and have renewable energies account for 52% of the energy mix. By such means, the country’s image will certainly be enhanced on the international stage, as Morocco is planned to be hosting the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in November 2016 as a follow-up to the one just held in Paris in December 2015.

Photo source: npr.com.

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