Sustainable Energy

Morocco’s Massive Desert Solar Project Starts Up

Africa is becoming a test bed for solar power, on scales both large and small.

Overcoming a series of delays, Morocco started up its Noor I solar project on February 4, marking what many observers call a new era for solar power in North Africa.

Located at the edge of Sahara Desert about 120 miles from Marrakesh, Noor I is a 160-megawatt concentrated-solar plant that uses half a million parabolic mirrors to focus sunlight to heat liquid that’s used to create steam to power turbines.

The project, which cost nearly $2 billion, was originally envisioned as part of the Desertec plan to build similar plants across the Sahara and export the electricity to Europe. But it collapsed in 2013 when the major European backers pulled out. Noor I is the first of three phases under a plan to create a massive solar complex, supplying 580 megawatts of solar capacity, that could be the biggest in the world when completed. It’s part of Morocco’s ambition to generate 42 percent of its power from wind and solar energy by 2020.

Although 600 million people across Africa lack access to reliable electricity, the continent is becoming “a testing ground for cutting-edge solar power,” according to Quartz—mostly in the form of small, distributed systems that supply lighting and some electricity to individual households. A report from the Overseas Development Institute, in the United Kingdom, finds that small-scale solar could supply affordable power to most Africans by 2030, while reducing the use of dirty diesel generators across the continent.

Solar mirrors at the Noor 1 power plant, near the central Moroccan town of Ouarzazate.

(Sources: MAP, Quartz)

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