Africa Energy Series: A HUGE Bright Spot In The Desert

In the middle of the Moroccan desert in the Drâa-Tafilalet region, a few kilometres from the city of Ouarzazate stands the future largest concentrated solar power plant in the world.

Ouarzazate Solar Power Complex began in May 2013 and went into operation in February 2016 on an area of 2,500 hectares. Ouarzazate which is widely known as a filming location for Hollywood blockbusters like “Lawrence of Arabia”,”Gladiator”, Prince of Persia”, “The Way Back” and other movies, is now the location of the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant.

Energy from the sky

The new “pride” of Morocco and Africa is the fruit of a long-term national strategy to positively respond to the growing energy demand and the challenge of global warming by aiming at producing more than 40% of the Kingdom’s electricity from clean energy by 2020. It will supply more than one million people with electricity and avoid at least 730,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

The country has taken advantage of its desert areas which are particularly conducive to Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). The generation of electricity with solar concentrating systems is considered a future solution for producing renewable electricity. In fact, with only limited energy resources, Morocco depends on 90% of the imported energy for covering the needs of the country. This high dependence, coupled with the upward trend in oil prices, is a significant strain on the trade balance and the budget.

Consequently, Moroccan authorities took the initiative and, therefore, set up a solar energy plant, Noor, a four-phase project aiming at making the world’s largest multi-technology solar production with a capacity of 580 MW. Noor Ouarzazate is part of the national “Noor Plan” along with other sites: Ain Bni Mathar, Foum Al Oued, Boujdour and Sebkhat Tah. The whole plan aims at the establishment of an electricity production capacity from the solar energy of 2000 MW by the year 2020. The project also includes training, technical expertise, research development and the promotion of an integrated solar industry. It is part of Morocco’s 2010-2030 energy strategy with the objective to improve the country’s energy security of supply to sustainably reduce the kingdom’s dependence on the imported oil and diversify production sources through the use of renewable energies.

Four phases, one project

Noor Ouarzazate 1 is the first phase of this solar complex which was chosen for its exceptional sunshine, almost 320 days, the site spreads over an area of 480 hectares. The first phase of the Noor Complex consists of developing an IPP (Independent Power Producer) production project, covering the design, financing, construction, operation and maintenance of a solar thermal power plant of 160 MW. Based on thermo-solar technology (CSP), with cylindrical-parabolic sensors, Noor 1 has a storage capacity of 3 hours at full power and can supply electricity to more than 600,000 people.

The second phase of the Ouarzazate solar complex project consists of the construction of two separate CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) stations with storage capacities. Noor II will use cylindrical parabolic troughs with a power of 200 MW and Noor III, with a capacity of 150 MW based on tower technology, thus enabling technological diversification in the CSP. Noor uses four techniques to keep the heat and transform it into electricity at different times: from photovoltaic to immediately, and solar concentrating that will produce electricity until 3:00 in the morning. The project concentrates the sun’s rays on a coolant that passes through the parabolic troughs. It warms up to 393 degrees, and even higher up to 565 degrees, with storage that can go up to seven hours.

Spain’s Zaraida Mellado Munoz, HSE Manager, third right, talks to workers at the building site of Morocco’s Noor I solar power plant, near Ouarzazate, Morocco, Friday April, 24, 2015 . The facility will use parabolic mirrors to catch the sun’s rays to heat a salt solution and drive steam turbines to create power. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

Moroccan King Mohammed VI launched the works of the fourth and final phase of the solar power plant on 1 April. When completed, this phase will make the Noor project the largest solar thermal park in the world. The site is equipped with state-of-the-art technology to store electricity for hours.

A model for the whole world

When the plant is fully operational, it will be able to cope with continuously growing energy expenditure and will save 1 million tonnes of annual oil equivalent. On the side of greenhouse gas emission limitations so as to preserve the environment, the project aims at avoiding the emission of 3.7 tonnes of CO2. It will also be able to ensure an annual production capacity of 4,500 GW estimated at 18% of the annual national production. This initiative has known the participation of targeted public-private partnerships, both local and international, and more specifically the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN), which is responsible for the implementation of the whole project.

The project was highly acclaimed during the latest United Nations conference on climate change in Marrakech. The World Bank has indicated that the Noor Ouarzazate complex is expected to reduce the overall costs of concentrated solar energy by 3%. The project is internationally described as a model to follow for all countries of the world, especially in the African continent that is most affected by global warming. ”

“With this bold step toward a clean energy future, Morocco is pioneering a greener development and developing a cutting-edge solar technology,” said Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly, World Bank Country Director for the Maghreb. She added, “the returns on this investment will be significant for the country and its people, by enhancing energy security, creating a cleaner environment, and encouraging new industries and job creation.”

An ambitious project

Morocco is putting on this enormous project to reduce its energy bill, but also eventually export its electricity. With Germany as its first potential customer, it plans to phase out nuclear power in 2022. The cost of the project is about 3.000 billion Euros. Funding provided through a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement that brings together national and international institutions, including the KFW German Development Bank, which is the first investor of the Noor plant with a loan more than 800 million. Other investors include the African Development Bank, the World Bank, the Clean Technology Fund (part of Climate Investment Funds), the European Investment Bank, the French Development Agency, Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN), and other private operators. It also benefits from a significant grant from the European Union.

The operation of this plant depends on the ability of successful transfer of skills from foreign operating companies to the local workforce. The Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN) is watching over the project and multiplying the efforts to form a real industrial sector in the Kingdom of Morocco. The objective, at long-term, to be able to duplicate these infrastructures on the African continent and participate in its electrification.

The goals of the project

  • Reduce the Kingdom’s energy dependency and strengthening its electricity production capacity.
  • Reduce the negative impact of fossil energy imports on the state budget and the Kingdom’s trade balance.
  • Take advantage of a rich national resource: Morocco benefits from an exceptional rate of sunshine.
  • Promote the creation of a new solar sector in Morocco.
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions: the NOOR plan (2 GW) will avoid the emission of about 3.7 million tonnes of CO2.
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