Clean energy dividend evades Moroccan citizens
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Morocco undershot its renewable energy target by 5 percentage points last year, when green power accounted for 37 per cent of its electricity. But, with a target of producing just over half its energy from renewable sources by 2030, the country still has one of the most ambitious clean energy programmes in the Middle East and north Africa region.
As the climate crisis pushes governments and companies to reduce their emissions and reliance on fossil fuels, Morocco is positioning itself as a clean energy leader with the potential to export energy to Europe and new technology to Africa.
Yet there are worries that an overly export-oriented renewable energy sector could be to the detriment of the local energy transition — and to the Moroccan population.
Climate observers view Morocco kindly, says Karim Elgendy, associate fellow at Chatham House and founder of Carboun, which advocates for sustainability in Mena cities. “[Morocco’s] emissions are less than two tonnes per person — that is less than the world average,” he notes. “So, for them to say they are going to do their bit, is encouraging.”
Egypt is aiming to achieve 42 per cent renewable energy by 2035, Saudi Arabia is targeting 50 per cent by 2030 while the UAE wants to reach 44 per cent by 2050.
The renewable energy sector is of particular strategic importance for Morocco, as it is a country that imports close to 90 per cent of its energy.
Rocketing oil prices prompted Morocco to launch its own energy strategy in 2009. Rabat “was putting in place many development projects across sectors, in industry, in aeronautics — we needed electricity to be able to develop our country”, recalls Fatema Hamdouch, strategy and monitoring director at the publicly funded renewable energy company Masen, which manages solar, wind and hydropower projects.
Morocco’s renewable energy sector has the potential to produce 500TW per year, or equivalent to that of Nigeria or Venezuela in gas and petrol, according to the Economic Social and Environmental Council (CESE), a government institution. This calculation includes output from the disputed Western Sahara territory: according to a recent report by Western Sahara Resource Watch, a Brussels-based campaign group, 15 and 18 per cent of Morocco’s current solar and wind capacity, respectively, are sourced from projects within the disputed territory.
But while Morocco has set its sights high, progress has been slower than hoped — and investment in big projects has not translated into better economic outcomes for Moroccan citizens, observes Rachid Aourraz, an economist with the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis.
“In the decade 2011-2020, the GDP per inhabitant has been stable — what is the utility if the revenue of citizens remains stagnant?” he says, adding that the renewable sector has potential but needs to function at “a lower cost and with more advanced technologies”.
As well as falling short of stated targets, Masen has been criticised for its use of the expensive and water-intensive “concentrating solar power” (CSP) technology — which channels the sun’s rays to drive steam turbines that generate electricity — in the Noor mega-project.
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The company’s annual deficit on the Noor CSP units is estimated at 800m dirhams (€75m) due to the gap in the real cost per kW of energy and the cost of that sold to the National Office of Electricity and Drinking Water (ONEE), according to a CESE report last year.
Still, European countries have been looking to southern neighbour Morocco to help achieve their decarbonisation goals as part of the bloc’s Green New Deal. There are currently two cables through which Morocco and Spain can send electricity in either direction. Until now, they have been mostly used to send electricity from Spain to Morocco, although this began to change in 2019.
A British company, Xlinks, has also announced plans to export energy from Morocco to the UK via what will be the world’s longest undersea electric cable. The 3,800km link will transport energy from a private wind and solar farm with the capacity to produce 10.5GW of power.
However, regulations that prioritise the export of clean energy to Europe could result in a reliance on coal-fired electricity for domestic needs, according to a report by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, an NGO affiliated to the German Green Party. In addition, the water-intensive process of green hydrogen production could increase pressure on Morocco’s already scarce water resources.
Green hydrogen — often touted as “the new oil” — is produced by splitting the elements in water using electrolysis, powered by renewable energy. It takes nine litres of water to produce 1kg of hydrogen. The pure hydrogen can be used as an energy source, as well as to store and transport energy.
Morocco’s energy ministry predicts the country could capture 4 per cent of the future global hydrogen market. However, production of green hydrogen has yet to take off and a German-Moroccan partnership called Power-to-X has been paused due to diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is trying to get a foothold in the clean fuel export market and has started building a $5bn hydrogen plant in its new megacity, Neom.
The fuel is being pursued as a solution to decarbonise industries that are difficult to convert to electric, says Bauke Baumann, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Rabat office. “There is a huge demand for [green hydrogen] and it will come. The question is: just at what speed, and in which countries, with which technology?”
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