On my 2013 Moroccan trip, we drove through the town of Ouazazate, “the door of the desert” and an old trading outpost that grew under French colonial rule as a garrison town and administrative centre. Its more recent claim to fame is as the country’s largest film studio, playing host to the shooting of scenes for Lawrence of Arabia to Game of Thrones, via Gladiator and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. As we rolled out of town eastwards, I stopped to absorb the spectacular views of the alluvial fans reaching up towards the high Atlas Mountains, from which storms were rolling down violently into the valley. I thought of flash floods, but I was completely unaware of the area’s plans for a new source of fame – and electricity – the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world, the first phase of which, as reported in the Guardian, is due to open shortly.
This is a fascinating mega-project, and “mega” is certainly appropriate: when completed, the four linked plants will generate 580MW of power, cover an area the size of Morocco’s capital , Rabat, and will have cost $9 billion. But they will make a key contribution to the goal of solar providing 14% of the country’s energy needs by 2020, together with the resulting substantial reduction in carbon emissions.
Maha el-Kadiri, a spokeswoman for the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen), describes the projects as "at the avant-garde of solar", and the technology is certainly different and cutting-edge. Rather than being based on photovoltaic cells, CSP uses sun-tracking concave mirrors – each of them 12 meters high and numbering 500,000 just for the first phase, Noor-1 – to focus the heat on steel pipes carrying a synthetic heat-transfer solution. The fluid is heated to close to 400 degrees centigrade before transferring that heat to the water of the power-generating turbines. It’s a very different technology from photovoltaics, and is more expensive, but has one significant advantage: the heat can be stored. For Noor-1, the storage capacity (using molten salt, not, as the Guardian article reported, molten sand) will be around three hours, but for later phases this will extend to eight hours. When the project is completed, it will be capable of storage amounting to several thousand MW-hours.
It will be fascinating to see how this project evolves, and how it can overcome a number of challenges. As the Guardian reports:
The potential for solar power from the desert has been known for decades. In the days after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 the German particle physicist, Gerhard Knies, calculated that the world’s deserts receive enough energy in a few hours to provide for humanity’s power needs for a whole year.
Of course there is immense power capacity in the planet’s arid lands – just as there is in geothermal and tidal energy. But that’s not the point – there are any number of thorny and currently unanswerable questions:
The challenge though, has been capturing that energy and transporting it to the population centres where it is required.
The Noor project can supply much of Morocco’s internal demand, but it is looking to export electricity and, as the collapse of the Desertec project dramatically demonstrated, this is essentially impossible under today’s conditions. Desertec failed not only through internal wrangling, but also in the face of insurmountable political, legal and regulatory hurdles – the foundation for a power grid and interconnectors linking North African countries is simply not there, and, perhaps more surprisingly, it’s not there in Europe either.
Ahmed Baroudi, manager of Société d’Investissements Energétiques, the national renewable energy investment firm, is quoted as saying that “We are already involved in high tension transportation lines to cover the full south of Morocco and Mauritania as a first step” and, on an extraordinary scale, both economically and politically, “The [ultimate] objective given by his majesty the king is Mecca.”
And then there are the questions about how much of the surface of the arid ecosystem we are prepared to cover with generating facilities, how much water these projects will ultimately require and what is the life of the installations. But we have to give Morocco a great deal of credit for testing this potential.