Morocco: Investing in renewable energy in the southern desert

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Morocco on May 10th officially launched the construction of a 160-megawatt solar power plant near the desert city of Ouarzazate, the first in a series of vast solar projects planned in the country.

Picture credit: ChristofferRiemer

The largest of its kind in the world, according to Mustapha Bakkoury, the head of Morocco’s solar energy agency MASEN, the thermo-solar plant will cost Dirhams 7 bn and is slated for completion in 2015, the official MAP news agency reported.

The ambitious project “reinforces the will… to optimise the exploitation of Morocco’s natural resources, to preserve its environment… and sustain its development,” Bakkoury said at the ceremony which was attended by King Mohammed VI.

It is the first of a two-phase project, due for completion in 2020, that is expected to cover 3,000 hectares and have a generation capacity of 500 megawatts, enough to met the electricity needs of Ouarzazate’s 1.5m residents.

The North African country is aiming to become a world-class renewable energy producer, and is eyeing the chance to export clean electricity to neighbouring Europe.

Morocco expects to build five new solar plants by the end of the decade with a combined production capacity of 2,000 megawatts and at an estimated cost of US$9bn. 

Meanwhile the country is also ploughing ahead with a programme to boost wind energy production, particularly in the southern Tarfaya region, where Africa’s largest wind farm is set to open in 2014.

The kingdom, which has no hydrocarbon reserves of its own, hopes to cover 42% of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2020, and has launched a plan to produce 4,000 megawatts.

Half of this will come from solar energy while wind power will supply the remaining 2,000 MW, and Morocco’s wind-blown southern coast, where many of the new farms will be built, already resembles a huge building site.

At Tarfaya, which will be home to the continent’s biggest wind farm, the project led by the French company GDF Suez, in partnership with local company Nareva Holding, is only just beginning.

“Building started at the end of December 2012. But the first section, which will produce 50 MW, will be in service in January,” Francis Schang, a manager at Siemens which is carrying out the work, told AFP.

“It’s a high-speed project,” he added. By December 2014, if all goes to plan, 131 turbines, each 80 metres (260 feet) tall, will dot the desert landscape.

At a cost of nearly €500m ($640m), the Tarfaya wind farm, stretching over nearly 20 kms (12 miles), will allow Morocco to “avoid CO2 emissions equal to the amount absorbed by 150m trees,” Boutaina Sefiani, the head of the project, said.

The main problem that has to be addressed is the effect sand from the surrounding desert will have on the turbine mechanisms, Schang said.

“The turbines will require greater maintenance, with a special sealing treatment,” he said.

The Akhfennir wind farm around 100 kis east of Tarfaya is much smaller, but is almost ready to start production, with 50 turbines already operational.

Around 10 more turbines will be switched on in June, allowing them to produce 100 MW, Mohamed Ben Osmane, project manager for Moroccan Wind Energy (Energie Eolienne du Maroc, EEM), said, adding that the site’s capacity is expected to double over time.

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