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Morocco’s Windy Future

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King Mohammed VI (c) of Morocco at the inauguration of the wind farm of “Dahr Saadane”, June 28, 2010 in Tangiers. Photo: ABDELHAK SENNA / AFP ©AFP ⁃ ABDELHAK SENNA

Morocco, one of only two countries on track, the other one being Nigeria to meet global climate change targets, is seen as leading in the fight to reduce carbon emissions. In 2016, it hosted COP 22, a multilateral international conference on climate change, and it has made advances in solar power, notably as part of a scheme to fit 600 mosques with solar energy systems. Now, wind power is showing potential to help meet Morocco’s domestic demands as well as those of its neighbours.

Yet despite this positive picture, the country’s green future hinges on some significant and contentious obstacles.

Morocco’s first wind farm, located in el-Koudia el-Baida in the northern province of Tetouan, was installed in 2000. However, exploration of wind power’s potential goes back to the late 1980s and early ’90s. In 1986, the Moroccan Renewable Energy Development Centre (CDER) published the Wind Atlas of Morocco, and in 1990, it launched a special wind-measuring programme.

In a 2016 research paper, Khalid Benhamou of Sahara Wind wrote that efforts to develop wind energy were limited until ‘the significant Atlantic trade winds potential blowing over the Sahara desert coastline were brought to the attention of Morocco’s head of state’, and wind power’s strategic value for the future was realized.

There are currently ten wind farms in Morocco, two of which are under construction. The government’s investment portal states that wind capacity will reach 2,000 megawatts (MW) by 2020, up from 280MW in 2010. Morocco also produces solar, hydroelectric and biomass energy.

Wind farms can currently produce 2 gigawatts (GW) of power each year, and The kingdom is hoping to achieve 6,600GW energy production each year from its 2GW turbines, making up 14 per cent of the national energy balance by 2020.

The Oxford Business Group reported that 42 per cent of Morocco’s energy is predicted to come from renewable sources by 2020 and 52 per cent by 2030. Stanford University claimed the country could rely on green power alone by 2050.

Morocco’s huge wind farm potential – which the Moroccan Investment Development Agency estimates to be 25,000MW – is the result of its fortuitous geographic position, its connection to the Spanish grid and a western coastline.

“Essentially, if you want good wind resources you have to get close to the sea. In Morocco, the westernmost part of the country is exposed to the North Atlantic trade winds. Those circular air movements over the Atlantic represent the biggest wind energy movements probably in the world,” Benhamou told Fanack.

This premium position has attracted plenty of green investment. For example, SIE, an energy investment company, was created especially for the purpose of funding expansion of wind energy with 1 billion dirhams ($103.4 million) of capital, although that has now been converted into an energy service company, to reduce energy costs and make energy provision more efficient.

One project – a $2.5 billion desert wind farm announced in July 2018 by cryptocurrency mining company Soluna – is looking to provide a dedicated, low-cost power source for blockchain technology. Then there are a number of multilateral donors, including the World Bank and European Investment Bank, and bilateral donors including Germany’s KfW Development Bank.

Considering its ambitions, however, Morocco needs substantial investment, which an International Energy Agency (IEA) report estimated to be $30 billion, in order to reach its renewable target for 2030 (wind power and other renewable sources).

A number of wind power projects are nonetheless in the pipeline, with the potential of not only servicing Morocco but also generating a surplus for export to Europe and elsewhere in Africa. The IEA reported that a roadmap for sustainable electricity trade was established between Morocco and Germany, France, Spain and Portugal on 19 December 2018. Morocco could also tap into the West African power pool.

The country’s – and the continent’s – largest wind farm is located in Tarfaya, south-western Morocco, which generates enough power for 1.5 million homes. According to German company Siemens, which is responsible for 131 turbines on the site, ‘the renewable power from Tarfaya’s wind turbines is expected to offset 900,000 tons of CO2 emissions each year’, equivalent to 150 million trees.

Other benefits include providing local employment on the farms themselves or at related businesses, such as Soluna’s tech enterprise. Soluna has also pledged to allocate 1 per cent of its revenue to programmes that provide meaningful value to local citizens. Similarly, the wind farm in Tarfaya gives $41,344 to the area each year, which is used for projects including the installation of street lighting and supporting local youth.

More widely, Morocco’s green strategy endeavours to increase threefold the income of nearly 3 million people living in rural areas.

However, green investment is not without its challenges and requires more than money to realize its lofty targets. For instance, the Morocco-administered territory of Western Sahara, where the Soluna facility is due to be located, is claimed by the Polisario Front, a nationalist movement that represents the Sahrawi people.

A 2016 statement by Erik Hagen of Western Sahara Resource Watch said that anchoring Morocco’s presence in the area will further hinder “self-determination and decolonization in Western Sahara”.

This is why wind power rollout has been slower than hoped, said Benhamou. “[Morocco’s] pristine best wind-blown region is located in a retreat where it cannot attract multilateral funding.” He added that it has been difficult to mobilize an intervention that would resolve the question of the territory’s final status.

The irony is that with most of the wind farms in the country connected to the grid, this itself involves industrialization processes.

“Now the idea is to see whether in the region you can then use clean energy to process fertilizer from phosphate. It’s an energy-intensive process, which can be done using wind energy, displacing fossil fuels on a massive scale,” said Benhamou, adding that there is a case to be made for decarbonizing the fertilizer and steel industries as well.

The IEA noted that Morocco still has a lot to do if it is to reach its renewable energy targets. For instance, it can put in place reforms and operationalize a planned regulatory authority to mobilize private investment. It could also introduce advanced technology such as battery storage or desalination plants that are powered by renewables.

In addition, energy efficiency needs to be improved. Energy consumption overall has increased and, according to the IEA, current energy efficiency measures will not be enough to meet energy and climate objectives.

Morocco’s place on the clean energy leaderboard has certainly been rising, and the country and its neighbours are keen to develop wind power. However, reaching at least the level where global warming does not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius – considered the danger line for life as we know it – institutional and operational changes are needed.

At the same time, with wind power capacity dependent on access to the disputed Western Sahara, the country faces territorial and human rights issues that may make it hard to attract additional investors.

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