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Morocco and its Sun | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Moroccan King Mohammed VI (C-R) attends the official launching of the construction of a 160-megawatt solar power plant near the desert city of Ouarzazate, on May 10, 2013. (AFP PHOTOS/AZZOUZ BOUKALLOUCH)

Moroccan King Mohammed VI (C-R) attends the official launching of the construction of a 160-megawatt solar power plant near the desert city of Ouarzazate, on May 10, 2013. (AFP PHOTOS/AZZOUZ BOUKALLOUCH)

There is a debate surrounding the origin of the name of Marrakesh, the former imperial capital of Morocco. Traditionally, historians and scholars have defended the thesis that the etymological origin of “Marrakesh” is “the place where bandits attack caravans.” But recently, several voices have argued that the name “Marrakesh” derives from the Berber Amazigh word “Tamurt n Yakush” (land of God) and was named after an ancient sun god, who was probably revered by the ancient habitants of Morocco before the Roman conquest.

Little is known about this god and its worshippers, but the sun’s symbolism has always been present in Morocco’s history, from Roman mosaics to the flag of the Marinid dynasty in the fourteenth century. Nowadays, Morocco’s sun is a flagship argument for luring tourists from Europe and elsewhere. But the sun might also constitute a precious and unique resource that could completely change Morocco’s economic and industrial landscape in the future.

Last May, Morocco launched the construction of a 160-megawatt solar power plant near the city of Ouarzazate. The largest of its kind in the world, the project will cost EUR 600 million and is expected to reach completion by 2015. The World Bank, the African Development Bank and the European Investment Bank are helping to finance it, and a Saudi consortium is involved in the building process. Behind this ambitious project, there is a will to build up Morocco’s capabilities as an energy provider. The kingdom does not have any oil or gas, unlike its neighbor, Algeria, and its fellow monarchies in the Gulf, but it wants to get into the global energy tussle.

The case for the development of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) systems is quite obvious: Morocco is part of an arc that stretches from the Atlantic to northern India with a high level of Direct Normal Irradiance (DNI), a measure of radiation coming from the sun. But geography—more precisely, the strategic location of Morocco—provides for an even more obvious and compelling reason to invest in the development of solar energy. Morocco is just 8 miles (14 km) from Europe, a continent that desperately needs to diversify its sources of energy and where growing calls to break the dependence on oil and gas have become increasingly vocal. In fact, the DESERTEC Foundation, which promotes development by generating sustainable power from renewable sources of energy across the globe, has pinned Morocco’s potential in its EU–MENA project, a plan vying to develop a vast power grid from the outskirts of the Sahara desert to Europe combining solar energy with other renewable power sources.

To promote solar energy projects and embolden Morocco’s capabilities in this field, the public authorities have launched the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN). A public–private venture, MASEN has been at the forefront of the development of the Ouarzazate project. Its upcoming challenge will be to create an environment to solidify and sustain Morocco’s move into solar energy. Indeed—and this is, in a way, the main incentive when it comes to this whole venture—the development of concentrated solar power systems involves the development of a whole industry with new organizations, expertise and suppliers. For now, suppliers with the necessary expertise come mainly from Europe and other developed countries with high costs of manufacturing. In the long term, costs will need to come down dramatically to entrench the industry and help it blossom, implying that investment costs, and therefore manufacturing costs of the main components and systems, need to decrease. This will be made possible by developing local manufacturing capacities. Morocco, like other frontier economies in the Arab world, has technical and industrial capabilities that are likely to form a good basis on which to build CSP-related activities. It could become home to a new, high-potential industry serving the local market; in the future it could also serve regional and international markets. Thus, the country could benefit from significant job creation, alleviating one of its recurrent headaches.

The key towards success here is to avoid falling in the trap of the oil rent model. Indeed by choosing to break as an Energy provider, Morocco has to overcome the simple provider stage and try to build a real industrial capacity around its resource by encouraging the creation of firms specialized in this area. This involves a little revolution in various sectors ranging from the education and academic research to the professional training. The development of a real solar energy sector in the country will help Morocco overcome its gaps regarding the development of a strong and sustainable industrial sector and in a way explore to the full its relation with the sun.