On the edge of the Sahara desert, Morocco is building the world’s biggest solar power plants in a project largely funded by the European Union.
The huge 160-megawatt first phase of the Noor plant near the town of Ouarzazate contrasts with efforts by some other nations focused on tiny rooftop solar panels to bring power to remote rural homes.
Morocco is showcasing Noor before talks among almost 200 nations in Marrakesh about implementing a global deal to combat climate change that entered into force on November 4, a day when the Saharan sky was unusually overcast with spots of rain.
“We hope we can be an inspiration,” Mustapha Bakkoury, head of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, said.
The gleaming concentrated solar power plant is not economically competitive with cheaper fossil fuels but is a step to develop new technologies as prices for solar power fall sharply.
Morocco aims to get 52% of its electricity from clean energy such as wind and solar by 2030, up from 28% now.
Morocco aims to expand at other desert regions to 2 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2020 at a cost of $9 billion. On the sprawling site, south of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, workers clear ground with diggers, build concrete pillars and clean off Saharan dust that dims the sunshine.
By contrast in East Africa, M-KOPA Solar has installed 400,000 tiny rooftop solar panel systems costing $200 each on homes in the past five years to provide power for light bulbs and a radio.
M-KOPA Chief Executive Jesse Moore, whose company focuses most on Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, said rooftop solar systems were a breakthrough for Africa, where half the 1.2 billion people lack electricity.
Unlike Morocco, some nations in Africa find it hard to attract investors to green projects, part of global efforts to limit climate change and more floods, heat waves, and droughts that are a big threat to Africa.
“Morocco is particularly suited for a large-scale project. It may not be suitable for all other countries,” Roman Escolano, vice president of the European Investment Bank, said.
The European Union including the EIB has funded about 60% of Noor. Masen issued Morocco’s first green bond, of 106 million euros, last week to help finance Noor. Apart from the sunshine, Morocco has had relative political stability in recent years and a predictable legal and banking system, helping it attract investors.
Unusually for a desert, Morocco has water from the Atlas mountains to help clean off dust.