Published on Arab Voices

Morocco lights the way to a clean-energy future

Some countries of the Middle East and North Africa region are once again lighting up a new path. Following the social revolutions which showed the world the effect of combining non-violent protest with new media technology, an energy revolution is now underway. It also utilizes cutting-edge technology with the potential to lead the world into a new energy era. Pointing beyond fossil fuels, this revolution aims to harness an older and more abundant resource: sunshine.

Morocco has launched a National Solar Plan that is as bold as it is ambitious. Using Concentrated Solar Power technology, this $9 billion project aims to build five commercial-scale solar plants, with a generating capacity of 2,000 megawatts, the equivalent of a large nuclear power plant. The first solar plant will be constructed on the Ouarzazate plateau, south of the Atlas mountains, and is expected to begin generating power by 2014, with the full project slated for completion in 2020.

Morocco might be classified as a developing nation, but it is making a huge investment in its future, and championing the challenges of climate summits in Copenhagen and Cancun to fundamentally change our energy consumption models to protect the environment. This is no small feat for a country almost wholly reliant on coal and oil. Ouarzazate represents the first step in a radical transformation that by 2030 aims to cut the country's consumption of oil by 40 percent. Morocco currently imports 97% of its primary fuels, and this move toward domestic production will both provide significant energy security and eventually convert it into an energy exporter.

Apart from the economic benefits gained from nurturing a new industry - with the new jobs and skills it will create - the investment will also be a boon to the environment. It is calculated that the first phase of the Ouarzazate project will spare the atmosphere the equivalent of 240,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, while the full solar project will reduce annual emissions by three million tons.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is on the sharp end of climate change. Significant action to mitigate its effects is a necessity, not a subject for debate. Of the 19 countries that experienced record temperatures in 2010, five were in MENA.

From a development standpoint, this sort of extreme weather can have disastrous social and economic consequences; reversing gains and driving people back into poverty. The effect of lower precipitation and droughts is one example and precious water resources will become increasingly scarcer forcing people to spend more time looking for it, potentially foregoing critical activities such as education. In Yemen, where the search for water is the culturally defined job of young women, water scarcity could have a multi-generational impact on gender parity.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and while MENA is already grappling with its very real consequences, Morocco is showing a way forward. It is moving beyond pronouncements and translating commitments into actions. It is taking advantage of its wide open spaces and abundant sunshine. Although the World Bank and the Clean Technology Fund are supporting the project with low-cost financing, the leadership is Morocco's own. It is the first to launch a project under the MENA Concentrated Solar Power Scale-Up Program, a landmark World Bank development initiative that is designed to fund eight other commercial-scale power plants in the region.

Concentrated Solar Power technology has proven dependable in generating consistent levels of electricity, and the Moroccan plan will prove its suitability to large-scale industrial application. It will also prove to all the participants of the COP 15 and 16 climate summits, that mitigating the effects of climate change through the gradual replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy is possible. It just means taking the summit pronouncements seriously, and turning them into bold actions.

There is no GDP test for innovation. It is not size that matters, but vision and commitment, and Morocco is displaying plenty of both. The progress of the National Solar Plan will be watched closely by its neighbors, eager to follow in its footsteps. Morocco could very well unleash a green energy revolution in the heart of the sunshine belt.


Inger Andersen

Former Vice President, Middle East & North Africa

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