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Morocco unveils first phase of world’s largest solar plant

Desert complex will eventually pump 580 megawatts of power into African country's electricity grid

Noor I. PHOTO: Government of Morocco

Noor I outside Ouarzazate in southern Morocco. When all phases are completed, the project is expected to provide 1.2 million Moroccans with power. PHOTO: Government of Morocco

OUARZAZATE, Morocco—Morocco’s King Mohammed VI unveiled one of the world’s biggest solar plants Thursday, taking advantage of the Sahara sunshine and a growing global push for renewable energy.

The $3.9-billion project in the southern town of Ouarzazate, also known as Noor I, is the first phase of a project expected to provide 1.2 million Moroccans with power. Row after row of solar panels glisten in the sunlight, surrounding a power station in the centre.

Climate Investment Funds, a global agency investing $435 million in the project, said it will be the world’s biggest concentrated solar plant, meaning that it will store power to generate when the sun isn’t shining. It said Morocco was chosen for the project in part because of its political stability, and because the government created a solar energy agency and introduced measures in 2012 to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.

King Mohammed VI inaugurates the Noor 1 plant. PHOTO: Moroccan American Center for Policy

King Mohammed VI inaugurates the Noor 1 plant. PHOTO: Moroccan American Center for Policy

“Morocco was more advanced in terms of the regulatory framework and having the building blocks in place, whereas Tunisia and Egypt went through the Arab Spring,” said Mafalda Duarte, manager of the fund.

While other countries have seen democratic uprisings in recent years, Morocco’s leadership quelled protests with some reforms to avert upheaval. “The king and the government have sustained their leadership role,” she said.

Hakima El Haite, junior minister for Environment, said: “This project allows a number of countries to see there’s hope for countries who are not rich in petroleum.” El Haite referred to the recent climate conference in Paris, but noted the solar project began well before the meeting. Citing Morocco’s heavy external energy dependence, “this will give Morocco its autonomy,” El Haite said.

While the project is aimed at reducing carbon emissions, environmental activists are concerned that it will require water from the nearby Mansour Eddahbi dam for cooling, at a time of ongoing drought.

Unless overtaken in the interim, when all phases are complete, the 580 MW complex will be the largest solar plant in the world.

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