Massive New Power Plant Makes Morocco a Solar Superpower
A Moroccan city surrounded by desert is poised to become a new superpower in solar energy, with a massive new solar power plant under construction.
Ouarzazate, a Moroccan city on the edge of the Sahara desert, is no stranger to global attention. Its sweeping desert landscapes and near-year-round sunshine make it the heart of North Africa’s “Ouallywood” film industry, hosting film sets for huge productions like The Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia, and Game of Thrones. Ouarzazate will soon host a different kind of big-budget production: a 9 billion dollar solar power project which, when completed, will occupy as much land as the nation’s capital city, Rabat.
The solar power plant won’t be using the type of photovoltaic panels that have become a familiar sight on rooftops across the world. Instead, it will use concentrated solar power technology: rows of precisely curved mirrors will rotate slowly to track the sun’s passage across the sky, while focusing the sun’s rays onto a series of insulated pipes containing a synthetic oil heat-transfer solution. That solution is heated by the sun to a temperature of 393 degrees Celsius, and is channeled through the pipelines into a heat engine, where it is mixed with water to produce steam to turn turbines and produce clean electricity.
Noor 1, the first phase of the project, consists of 500,000 12-meter-tall mirrors in eight thousand neat rows and is capable of producing 160MW of electricity. Named after the Arabic word for “light,” the other phases, Noor 2 through 4, will go online one at a time beginning in 2017. The power plant will be completely operational by 2020, with the four phases working together to produce 580MW of electricity, or enough to power a million Moroccan homes.
The sun only shines during the day, of course, so a solution needed to be found to storing the energy long enough to continue electricity production through the night. The superheated thermal oil solution pumped towards a heat tank containing molten salts, which can store heat energy for up to three hours. Once Noor 2 and 3 are online, the additional molten salt capacity will allow for approximately 8 hours of heat energy storage, making this power plant capable of delivering electricity over a full 24-hour day.
The environmental and economic opportunities for solar power production in a desert country are enormous. In time, Morocco plans to expand energy production for export to other African countries and to Europe, but there is much infrastructure to be built before that can happen. Meanwhile, solar desalination projects are being discussed, as the region is increasingly affected by drought.
With the Noor power plant, Morocco is poised to meet its target of having half of its energy produced by renewable sources by 2020. It already uses some hydro and wind power, but Morocco currently imports 94% of its energy as fossil fuels, as Moroccan environment minister Hakima el-Haite told The Guardian. Not only is that a strain on the national budget, but it also puts them in a precarious position with dependence on outside sources for powering their lives. This plant puts them on the road to energy independence, and moves them from being global consumers of fossil fuels to being global producers of clean and renewable power.
Photo credits: Desert, Hichem Merouche via Flickr under Creative Commons license. Solar concentrators, US Bureau of Land Management via Wikimedia Commons