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Building momentum

T he theme for this year’s Earth Day was “Invest in Our Planet” – a clarion call to governments, companies and individuals to invest in a better future for the planet. The ideological battlefield of what a better future looks like, for whom, and how to achieve it is strewn with casualties, some with superficial wounds of cancel culture. However, there is broad consensus about the need to invest in infrastructure that enables economic growth and energy sovereignty. Morocco is on its way to both. One example of both is Al-Boraq.

On 15 November 2018 His Majesty (HM) King Mohammed VI of Morocco inaugurated Al-Boraq, Morocco’s high-speed train service which operates between Casablanca and Tangier. Manufactured by Alstom, the train service was designed to reduce the journey times between Morocco’s economic hubs from five hours to about two, with the trains traveling at speeds up to 320km/h. On 1 January 2022 Office National des Chemins de Fer (National Railways Office – ONCF) confirmed that the train service had started using green energy.

Moroccan High Speed Train | Al Boraq. Photo Credit: North Africa Post

The ONFC is hot on the heels of its Dutch counterpart Nederlandse Spoorwegen which fully converted to powering its trains with wind power in 2017. The Moroccan national operator is shifting the national railway network’s energy mix towards clean energy. ONCF started by switching 25 percent of the overall energy consumption to green energy to reach the goal of 50 percent by 2023, before fully transforming to clean energy in the medium term. This energy transition will allow ONFC to reduce its carbon footprint by 120,000 tons of CO² a year – an equivalent of four million trees planted. This plan is part of the National Energy Strategy led by HM King Mohammed VI, which aims to increase the share of renewable resources by more than 52 percent of installed capacity by 2030.

Full steam ahead

The envisaged benefits of the Al-Boraq Tangiers-Casablanca route are multi-fold – generate a sharp increase in passenger numbers and reduce carbon emissions, trigger a boost of tourism and provide support for wider economic growth. Critics have challenged the affordability of the train service, which is about 30 percent higher than regular trains. Although young people aged 16-26 and seniors over the age of 60 get a 15 percent discount, the USD 16-24 for a second-class ticket is a significant transport cost increase for those earning the average monthly wage of USD 400-500.

Some locals have questioned whether Morocco’s high speed train service would significantly benefit the country considering its other social and economic challenges. The national unemployment rate sits at 20 percent (youth unemployment rate at 40 percent) and there is only one doctor per 1,600 residents, less than half as many as neighbouring Algeria, which leaves the country vulnerable in the event of a public health crisis. These concerns have resulted in campaigns such as “Stop TGV” where an alliance of activists argued that the investments made on the project could have been better utilised for failing public services such as the limited access to good roads, clean water, schools, and hospitals outside the main cities. Despite the criticism, the Moroccan government maintained its stance on the value that the Al-Baroq will bring to its economy and the role that renewable energy will play in its development.

Stepping up ambitions

Morocco’s near absence of any fossil fuels has been a long-standing curse that may ultimately turn into its blessing. The country has historically imported roughly 90 percent of its energy needs but a little over a decade ago, the government began laying the foundations for greater energy independence. The enactment of Law No 13-09 relating to renewable energy and the creation of the Morocco Agency for Sustainable Energy (MASEN) in 2010 marked the clearest shift in the government’s thinking about securing energy supply and ensuring access to cost-effective electricity.

GW capacity

The legislative framework and institutional mandates have evolved. The most recent amendment to Law No 13-09, which triggered the development of the renewables sector and private participation in the production, sale and export of renewable energy, was in 2019.  Further changes are mooted in Draft Law No. 40-19, which aims to address some of the challenges faced by independent power producers (IPPs) through a raft of measures that further develop the renewable energy sector. The draft legislation allows for distribution network operators to acquire up to 40 percent of all energy from renewable energy sources to supply their customers; removes the confinement of solar projects to specific designated areas; revises how the tariff for the sale of excess electricity is determined; and provides greater clarity on the terms and conditions that apply to exporting renewable energy.

Several regulatory requirements are baked into this draft law, which suggests that once enacted, the supporting regulatory regime will be developed fairly quickly. The next significant legislative reform pertains to the self-consumption regime, which will impact who is defined as a “self-consumer” of energy, how installations are operated, and the sale of surplus energy to the grid.

Broadening horizons

MASEN’s mandate has evolved over the years. It was initially conceptualised as a state-controlled private company to implement the national solar energy project focused on producing a total capacity of 2,000 MW of renewable energy electricity. Its mandate was broadened in 2016 to overseeing the development of the entire renewable energy sector. This shifted the balance of power from the state-owned power generation, transmission and distribution company Office National de l’Electricité et de l’Eau Potable (National Office of Electricity and Drinking Water – ONEE) to MASEN. This paved the way for the government to develop IPP projects through MASEN.

The Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex is arguably the country’s flagship IPP under Morocco’s 2009 Solar Energy Program (Noor) that aims to build a minimum of 2 GW generation capacity by 2030. At 580 MW, the power plant is the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world. Located 10 kilometres north-east of the city of Ouarzazate, it consists of four phases developed on a build, own, operate and transfer (BOOT) model by ACWA Power Ouarzazate – a consortium comprising of ACWA Power, MASEN, Aries and TSK. Construction on phase one began in 2013 and the government has progressively brought more generation capacity online; the project is funded through a combination of debt and equity and MASEN is the offtaker.

These plans have attracted robust international investor interest. In April, Dubai-based AMEA Power was awarded a contract to build two 36 MW solar power plants in Taroudant, Souss-Massa region, and El Hajeb, in the Fes-Meknes region. Other recent tender awards include Moroccan energy company Taqa Maroc (48 MW), Italian renewable energy company Enel Green Power (48 MW), and French developer Voltalia (117 MW). These awards form part of the 2021 Noor PV II project. MASEN has awarded tenders for 13 out of 14 projects and construction has begun on half of the 14 projects that make up the Noor PV II project.

Counting blessings

Next up will be a tender for a 100 MW green hydrogen electrolyser project that will produce 183,000 tonnes of green ammonia by 2026. MASEN Head of Development Tarik Hamane has stated that financing has been confirmed and plans are in place for operations to begin by 2025. The development of green hydrogen projects goes hand in hand with the country’s goal to become a leading supplier of green fertilizer to Europe and other markets. What Morocco lacks in fossil fuels, it has in phosphate rock reserves. It has over 70% of global phosphate rock reserves, from which phosphorus used in fertilisers is derived. Another key component of fertilisers is ammonia, but Morocco has traditionally been a net importer. If renewable energy can be leveraged to produce green hydrogen, this could be transformed to ammonia with a low or no carbon footprint.

According to the United Nations COMTRADE, Morocco earned USD 3.38 billion in 2020 from fertiliser exports. This figure could increase considerably if the government’s efforts to decarbonise fertiliser production succeed. Demand for fertilisers is expected to increase in line with the accelerating pace of climate change. Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity brought about by shifting rainfall patterns and increased desertification. Morocco’s state-owned phosphate miner and fertilizer producer OCP Group has 12 subsidiaries across Africa and provides roughly 50% of all fertilisers used on the continent. Although it receives less attention than the Moroccan government’s other overtures made to African countries in recent years, its position as a front-runner in renewable energy on the continent may add novel options to its soft power and public diplomacy efforts on the continent.

Make hay while the sun shines

The government’s recalibration of the country’s energy mix touches all sectors of the economy and has pushed the boundaries of renewable energy research. For example, in 2020 a 800 MW hybrid Photovoltaic (PV) and CSP solar plant project at Midelt  – the first of its kind – became operational with a record low tariff of USD 7 cents/kWh and the ability to provide thermal storage for a minimum of five hour. First delivery to the grid is expected this year. The Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex, located in a region with the highest amounts of sunlight in the world – 2635 kWh/m2/year, is itself an exercise in the art of the possible: demonstrating that CPS plants and heat-based solar plants can be reliable in the absence of sunshine. The cost of PV solar cells has fallen drastically but Morocco’s CSP projects are looking to prove that alternatives are feasible, viable and profitable.

Developing the country’s research and technical capabilities has been a key component of the strength of its renewable energy project. A new industry requires new skills and an investment in human capital if future solutions are to be truly home-grown and implemented by locals. The Green Energy Park – a joint research platform located in Ben Guerir that focuses on solar energy – is a good example of capacity building, creating local research and development critical mass and developing a centre of excellence. Will Morocco become the first emerging economy to primarily fuel its development through renewable energy? The small village of Id Mjahdi near the coastal city of Essaouira is now 100 percent solar powered. If this is a sign of the times, Morocco’s future is bright.