Seeing the Light: Solar Energy and Morocco

From Saudi Arabia’s recent $109 billion dollar investment in solar energy to Denmark’s Our Future Energy project to the recent flight of Solar Impulse, interest in renewable energy has skyrocketed in the last year.

As energy prices continue to climb in response to climate change and the recovering global economy, major energy consuming and producing nations are beginning to see the value in investing in renewable sources of energy.

Previous attempts to revamp our global attitude to energy have floated around for the past decade or so. Although nuclear energy was poised to lead the way towards zero emissions, increased safety concerns following Japan’s Fukushima catastrophe stymied plans to construct more reactors across the world. Because of this shift, global attention has returned to older, more reliable renewable stand-bys such as wind and solar power. However, it is the latter method of capturing energy that has been the center of great policy leaps in the last few months.

On June 6, Solar Impulse, an intercontinental solar-powered flight, completed its 1,554-mile journey from Switzerland to Morocco. With its successful run, the project has raised international interest in the versatility of solar energy. While the historic flight may spark the imagination, its sponsor is perhaps even more interesting. 

In addition to marking our generation’s scientific ingenuity, Solar Impulse was also a public relations move meant to highlight the launch of construction of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy’s new 500-megawatt solar power plant in Ouarzazate, an area in the southern part of the country.

Morocco plans to use its most plentiful resource - sunlight - to produce over 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2015. Production levels would almost amount to 40% of the country’s current total energy usage. Although the project is expected to be expensive at over $1.25 billion, the Moroccan government has found eager funding sources among institutions such as the World Bank, African Development Bank and German-based consortium Dii. 

Despite the widely welcomed shift to renewable energy, there have been some who have expressed concerns about the impact of this shift on the Moroccan people. As the government invests gigantic sums of money in its solar projects, it has already been forced to cut subsidies for oil, resulting in a recent 15 - 20% increase in fuel prices, a burdensome jump for the average Moroccan citizen.

A large portion of the Ouarzazate plant is meant to produce energy for Morocco’s energy-hungry European neighbors to north via trade agreements with Spain. Moroccans, therefore, will not see a large percentage of this energy used in their own country.

While the Moroccan government has stated that it intends to subsidize the cost of the solar-produced energy, which is expected to be as much as twice the price of other energy sources, ongoing monitoring is needed to insure that these plans take effect. Increased efforts should also be made to ensure that the all segments of the Moroccan population have access to energy as many rural villages, particularly in parts of the country bordering the disputed region of Western Sahara, lack access to electricity. The temptation to capitalize on the European market and ignore its citizens may be too great, however the stipulations attached to the World Bank loans used for the Ouarzazate plant may encourage the Moroccan government to remain true to its plan.

The energy generated by the Ouarzazate plant has the potential to greatly reduce the global dependence on oil, which will only grow as the world’s population increases. Discussions about similar initiatives have taken place in other parts of sunny North Africa and the Middle East including Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Jordan.

On top of solar energy projects in the Middle East and North Africa, many European nations such as Denmark have considered increasing their usage of wind power by relying on deep-sea turbines. Despite recent positive shifts in policy, the future can only tell if these alternative energy sources will meet our global demand and wean us away from dependence on largely OPEC-produced oil.

Akinyi OchiengComment