By Assad Bhuglah
Morocco, an Arab country in North Africa, does not have oil and gas wealth. It is a heavily energy-dependent economy. It imports nearly all of its energy and relies predominantly on fossil fuels to meet its domestic energy demands. Morocco adopted a new national energy strategy in 2009 that aims not only to reduce its carbon footprint, but also to diversify the sector through a new framework of renewable energy projects financed by foreign investors and through green bonds issued by the country. But by far the most attention has been on the development of “mega” infrastructure projects in an ambitious plan to transform the country’s energy mix.
In 2015 King Mohammed VI committed the country to increasing its share of renewable electricity generation to 52% by 2030, aiming for the installation of around 10 gigawatts (GW). Of that, 14% is expected to come from solar, with plans to install 2GW of new capacity by 2020, as well as increases in wind power and hydraulic dams. Morocco has even opened the door to exchanging electricity produced from renewable sources with Europe.
Morocco has now become a green leader among developing nations, with an ambitious goal to produce more than half of its own energy needs by 2030 through a growing network of more than 50 public and private solar, wind, and water projects. The push is part of a national effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions, reduce pollution, and boost Morocco's energy independence. For many Moroccans, the transition represents a necessary investment in the future. But for others, especially members of the poor and working class, that down payment on a new economy does not visibly help to reduce the strains on their basic daily needs in the immediate and short-run.
Morocco’s flagship project on renewable energy is a massive $9 billion solar farm near Ouarzazate in south-central Morocco that, once completed, will be the world's largest. The solar farm uses innovative technology to store concentrated solar energy at night, a process that also will be used and expanded at a new solar plant planned for construction in Midelt in central Morocco. A new solar plant planned for Midelt will use cutting-edge hybrid solar-generating technology, which combines concentrated thermal power and solar photovoltaic to create a 24-hour power supply.
The Moroccan government also plans to install solar technology and energy efficient lights in 15,000 state-funded mosques in the next five years and banned plastic bags last year to reduce pollution. Morocco is far ahead of the United States and Canada in combating climate change, according to the international science-based Climate Action Tracker. Last year, Morocco signed the Paris Climate Agreement and hosted one of the first United Nations conferences of global leaders and experts to discuss implementation.
Morocco is also pushing energy consciousness in the public and private sectors through new laws and regulations in construction. Another major initiative offers subsidies to encourage farmers and growers to use solar water pumps instead of butane. A 2016 report from the environmental group Germanwatch noted that Morocco's energy needs are growing even as it is building capacity within the sector, requiring substantial new investment to meet the demand for power. Even though subsidies for gasoline, diesel, and kerosene were eliminated in 2014, electricity prices are still well below the cost of production and transmission, which strains the country's budget. And while it is considered a role model for renewable energy policy-making, "room for improvement yet remains," according to the report, which urged collaboration between Moroccan institutions that deal with renewable energy policy and called for an end to electricity subsidies.
In the meantime, Morocco's renewable energy policies are a source of pride for many in Morocco and have attracted global attention. But the shift to green energy has not been an easy sell, particularly among the poor and working class people, who complain that nothing has trickled down to them. Although Morocco's gross domestic product has been steadily rising, the country lacks the oil wealth of other parts of North Africa and the Middle East, and people often feel disconnected from the government, without access or resources that the elite enjoy. Many Moroccans, as at now, fail to see the economic rewards of a greener Morocco.
While the sources of renewable energy are free and infinite, producing it requires enormous investment in infrastructure, which does not necessarily translate into immediate cost savings to consumers. The jobs in the renewable energy sector also are highly technical and skilled, one of the reasons that universities across Morocco are creating renewable energy degree programmes and research centres to help fill the need. Until now, Morocco has needed to import skilled labourers and equipment to build the sophisticated nuts and bolts of the solar and wind farms, although that is slowly changing. In the long run, the renewable energy sector would be relying less on technicians as some of the Moroccan energy plants are being equipped by a bank of computers (not people) to monitor the direction of the wind, to measure how much electricity is being produced, and to detect which turbines needed maintenance.
Morocco’s experience with solar power offers key lessons for policymakers elsewhere in Africa who are seeking a robust pathway for addressing energy access challenges. This is highly relevant to sub-Saharan Africa, where many people in rural areas have no access to electricity and rely on fuelwood and other traditional biomass sources for cooking. Although the lessons from Morocco are both economically and technologically demanding, they could represent a key springboard for action elsewhere on the continent. Morocco seems to be well placed to extend technical assistance to fellow African countries, more so, as It has more than 20 trade agreements with them. Moroccan banks and insurance companies and the national airline, Royal Air Maroc, have a strong presence across the continent. Morocco, which has been re-admitted in the African Union, has the ambition to make Casablanca, the country’s commercial capital, as a hub for investment in Africa and use the nascent renewables sector to consolidate its ties with African countries.