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Entrepreneurs in the desert sun

Who would think that Morocco is a pioneer in solar energy and is investing heavily in achieving ambitious climate goals?

An expectant two-person team had prepared and prepared, with the next two years lined up before we left Germany. A number of African countries were on the itinerary – but already in the "Opening to Africa", Morocco, we did not get to customs. All of my partner's film equipment was snapped away in front of our eyes; only a small camera was allowed to pass as a tourist

Medieval and modernity

This as a warning to all Morocco travelers, and to set the stage for a country that is on the verge of two vastly different worlds: the first marked by conservative Islamism and panic-stricken terror, with indigenous settlements and armed police on every street corner ; the other a society that will open up to the outside world and modernity – environmentally, technologically and to assert itself in global competition. 

In Morocco, today there are almost no households without electricity. 

A recent example is a high-tech energy recovery facility in the middle of the desert, a couple of hours drive southeast of Marrakech. Here, MASEN – the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy – has erected a gigantic solar power plant on the outskirts of Ouarzazate, a city that otherwise has little to offer, according to the waitress at our cafe.  

Light and warmth

King Mohammed and the government are trying to counter the exodus from the countryside, and the district effort is emerging as a blight of new infrastructure: Broad sidewalks have been laid and decorative street lights have been set up in every small town we come to – even in areas where there are barely any people. Often the only new buildings are the police station, the town hall, the school and the mosque. In this monarchy, the "State, it is I" principle applies, and the royal house is the country's largest entrepreneur.

We are on our way to Morocco's unique solar power plant. Once we have left the city, the landscape expands into endless, dry brown surfaces. If you removed some rock here and there, the ground could be paved directly and a perfect runway would be magically advanced in one day. 

52 percent of Morocco's energy will be renewable by 2030 – in a country that until recently imported 97 percent of its energy.

The Atlas Mountains are in the distance, as we approach the power plant, which has the ambition to be of the order of 150 MW CSP (Concentrated Solar Power). Now it is partly in operation, partly under construction. Before we reach the strictly guarded area, the surroundings change character: A several-kilometer-long needle pad stretches across the landscape – hundreds of stream masts projecting into an intense blue sky.

Ait Ali, a young and well-educated Moroccan, kindly welcomes us. As Minister of State of the German Ministry of Energy and Business, my company has just been here, so we release all formalities around our visit. Otherwise, the procedures are many, for safety reasons.

The reception hall is empty; The couches have obviously never been seated in. Ali is MASEN's press spokesman. He takes us to the top of the building, where a mighty sight meets us: a sea of ​​mirrors – and a high tower against the mountains' silhouette. 

Largest in the world

The MASEN plant is divided into three parts: Noor I, II and III (noor is Arabic for "light"). The first two use satellite "trajectory technology", where curved mirrors concentrate the sunlight and reflect it to a receiver along the reflector's focus line. The receiver is a tube filled with special oil, and this heated oil in turn becomes the heat source which generates power through a steam-powered generator.

Photo: Ranveig Eckhoff

Noor III, which is scheduled to supply power as early as October 2018, makes use of CSP – / "concentrated solar power" technology. Here, 7400 mirrors are placed around a 243 meter high tower. Like sunflowers, the mirrors follow the sun as they send the rays toward the upper part of the tower. Instead of oil, salt – with a melting point of 801 degrees – is used here in liquid form. Noor III will be able to store the energy for seven to eight hours before being converted to power. This storage capability makes CSP more attractive than conventional photovoltaic power, PVP), since the energy can then be used as needed. 

The technological race is underway, including in Morocco. There is only one other large-format CSP tower in the world – at the Crescent Dunes power plant in Nevada, with 110 MW as its target – against MASEN's 150.

Mr. Ali states that the plan is to offer "scientific tourism". And yes, this is probably the only form of tourism that can be relevant on these edges – but in return for brash and breezy. During our technological lightning course, Ali has driven us all over the vast area. The sun is in the senate. Suddenly, it becomes crowded in this Star Wars-like landscape: A group of shift workers pour out of a building – ready for the day, which started at 04.

Plus and minus

The sun is shining in most of Africa, so why is this plant right here? The desert sun has a particularly high radiation level. But the desert also has a lot of sand and little water, as is well known, and large quantities of the latter are required in energy production, including continuous cleaning of the mirror surfaces. The water comes from a nearby dam plant, which takes water from mountains and rivers in the region. So the locals protest well? I wonder. Of course not, is the answer; Morocco is a country where people rarely express their displeasure. 

MASEN aims high, not only in the competition for market shares, but also with a view to achieving the country's climate goals. The company is leading one of the country's development programs, which aims to increase energy supply by 3000 MW of clean electricity by 2020, and 6000 MW by 2030. 52 percent of the country's "energy mix" will consist of renewable energy by 2030 – in a country that until recently imported 97 percent of its total energy.  

There are only two large-format concentrated solar power plants in the world – Nevadas at 110 MW and Morocco at 150.

In Morocco, today there are almost no households without electricity. The sun provides electricity in remote areas, where pumps deliver water to agriculture or to high mountains where antennas are located. Morocco is thus a pioneer in the energy field. 

However, the country has its generous supporters: Saudi Arabia is among the investors in MASEN's giant venture. So too are Climate Investment Funds, known for helping developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. More than $ 400 million made the fund available to the Moroccan government's solar energy project, out of a total budget of more than $ 9 billion. The EU, and especially Germany, has also provided credit and financial support. 

Equipment for trouble

My partner and I have one last point on the Morocco program: getting our confiscated camera equipment back. We arrive at the airport many hours before departure, but the customs officer's office is closed until we have the boarding passes in hand. The clerk looks at the documents and mutters something about "import tax" – and our courtesy undergoes an acute stress test. Finally, he announces that we will at least pay for the storage. 

And this is how we close the opening of Africa.

Eckhoff and Baake are freelance journalists, currently traveling in Africa.
They report regularly to Ny Tid.

avatar photos
Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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