The Moroccan city of Ouarzazate is used to mega productions. On the edge of the Sahara desert and the centre of the North African country’s “Ouallywood” film industry it has played host to big-budget location shots in Gladiator, The Mummy, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and even the television series Game of Thrones.
Now this hot dusty mud brick ancient trading city, south of Marrakesh, also known as the “door of the desert”, is the centre for another epic – an ambitious plan to build $9bn (£6bn) complex of four linked solar mega-plants that, alongside hydro and wind, will help provide nearly half of Morocco’s electricity from renewables by 2020. The Noor-Ouarzazate Solar Complex alone will generate 160 megawatts of electricity supply power, enough to 1.1 million Moroccans by 2018. Morocco is the only North African country, at present with no natural oil resources and is the largest energy importer in the region with 96 per cent of its energy needs being sourced externally, much of it for power generation, so this new power complex should mean major savings in foreign exchange.
When the full complex is complete, it will be the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world, and the first phase, called Noor 1, will start working in November. It will use mirror technology, which is less popular and more expensive than the photovoltaic panels, which you normally see the world over. However, unlike photovoltaic panels it has the advantage of being able to continue producing power even after the sun goes down.
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. The challenge though, has been capturing that energy and transporting it to the population centres where it is required.
As engineers put the finishing touches to Noor 1, its 500,000 crescent-shaped solar mirrors glitter across the desert skyline. The 800 rows follow the sun as it tracks across the heavens, whirring quietly every few minutes as their shadows slip further east.
Solar energy will make up a third of Morocco’s renewable energy supply by 2020, with wind and hydro taking the same share each. There are ambitions that many new jobs will be created, due to the cheap power created and that Morocco, because of this and similar renewables projects will become a major exporter of power to Europe via the subsea power interconnector that crosses the Straits of Gibraltar, and links Morocco with Spain. Though getting the power to heart of Europe will need further upgrades in capacity of the cross border power network that crosses the Pyrenees Mountains from Spain to France.