Tasselmante has a powerful new neighbor: the 500 MW NOORo solar complex sited on 3000 ha rocky desert land next to the village.
Tasselmante is located in the Province of Ouarzazate at the edge of the Sahara Desert. It is a small mud-brick village built with the colors of the desert soil. In Amazigh, the language of the indigenous Berber population, Tasselmante means “the safe home”. Many historic monuments, such as the famous fortified castles called Kasbahs bear testimony of the times when the historic region of Ouarzazate was home to powerful dynasties reigning over Morocco. Today, however, these times are long gone. Green fields with fruits, dates and almonds as well as flourishing trade routes have turned into dried-up springs and streams, perished palm oases and abandoned farmland. While the Government of Morocco has made socio-economic development its primary national priority, until recently, the region was politically neglected and economically isolated. It is marked by some of the nation’s poorest infrastructures, concentrated poverty, high unemployment rates, and rural exodus. Additionally, the region is highly vulnerable to environmental stressors from climate change. Consecutive years of drought, erratic rainfall patterns, desertification, and water scarcity are now regular phenomena and pose severe threats to the people’s livelihoods.
However, despite the harsh living conditions the region is characterized by its hospitality and solidarity rooted in traditional religious values. In Tasselmante, for example, community challenges are shared and solved together among the 200 inhabitants. Weddings are celebrated as if the whole village was getting married. And because people’s lives heavily depend on the environment they live in, the region is known for its political engagement. People care about their environment and demand the involvement in any decision-making which affects their lives and the future of their village. This also mirrors in high numbers of local civil society organizations which used to work on lifting up their neighborhood out of economic misery in absence of political support. Their work has radically changed ever since a new neighbor has moved into the front yard of Tasselmante (1 kilometer away from the village).
Introducing Tasselmante’s new neighbor: The 500 MW NOORo solar complex
As a country where fighting climate change is a question of survival, Morocco nowadays is regarded as a forerunner of transitioning towards a low-carbon economy based on high shares of renewable energy in the energy mix. Under the patronage of King Mohammed VI, the kingdom has set an ambitious target to achieve 42% of installed capacity from renewable energy by 2020. And since 2013, as the first project to be executed within the Moroccan Solar Plan (MoSP), Tasselmante has a powerful new neighbor: the 500 MW NOORo solar complex sited on 3000 ha rocky desert land next to the village. The first phase (NOORo I) is a 160 MW parabolic trough Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) installation (with three hours of molten salt thermal energy storage capacity and wet-cooling), the second is a 200 MW parabolic trough, the third a 150 MW CSP tower (both with dry cooling and a minimum of seven hours storage) and the fourth a 50-70 MW photovoltaic. When the third phase is complete, the NOORo solar complex will be among the largest CSP plants in the world preventing the release of 762,000 tons of CO2 per year or 19 million tons of CO2 over a period of 25 years.
Figure 2: Villagers of Tasselmante during a visit of the authors
Contributions of NOORo to a good neighborhood in the region of Tasselmante
High expectations among the local population come with the scale of the project. Where the youth is lacking job opportunities, where women are urging for their men to come back home from their long absences looking for jobs in distant cities, where education in universities is mismatched with the job market requirements, where infrastructure is inadequate, the NOORo solar complex is perceived as the savior and received with a widespread sense of patriotic pride. Taking into account the different sustainability challenges prevailing in the region of Tasselmante, the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN), responsible for the project implementation, not simply prioritizes its ambition out of concern for the climate, but rather as a means to achieve multiple development objectives in local communities through integrated solar development projects. Besides its contribution to national electricity generation, the efforts taken by MASEN to address the local needs include:
- Employment opportunities and industrial integration: Recruitment and procurement policies prioritize local workers and small-medium enterprises in order to achieve the highest possible local content during the construction phase. This has improved the socio-economic situation in the region and the standard of living in certain households of Tasselmante. While only a handful of the 700 direct construction jobs for local workers from the Ouarzazate area (out of more than 1,600/1,800 jobs created in Morocco/in total) and business opportunities for local suppliers will remain during operation, potential induced income effects in the service and tourism sector could spur longer-term economic opportunities that have not previously existed in the region.
- Skill development and training: MASEN addresses the limited local absorptive capacities by coupling local procurement and recruitment policies with additional measures. The planned initiatives in the fields of capacity building and R&D aim to increase the productivity and competitiveness of the local economy through technology and knowledge transfer throughout the entire value chain of the project.
- Social development and socio-cultural enhancement: Investments made under a Social Development Plan (SDP) – generated from the proceeds of the land transfer for NOORo – and the voluntary measures taken by MASEN that target improved access and availability of social services are another crucial element in distributing net benefits at the local level. The SDP has already contributed to improved living conditions in Tasselmante and other adjacent communities and is expected to become a catalyst for further regional development.
Despite the efforts undertaken by MASEN to positively contribute to socio-economic development of local communities, there were pockets of frustration among neighbouring villages. These were due to shortfalls in the project siting and implementation procedures, which partly lacked transparent communication and inclusive participation opportunities. The educational background and the indigenous language spoken by the local communities proved to be substantial barriers to constructive dialogue. This led to unrealistic expectations towards the project, which ultimately resulted in disappointment and a lack of trust towards the project developers and local authorities. As a response, MASEN has now increased its efforts to open the doors for local inhabitants and to foster trusting relationships with local communities such as Tasselmante. Two of the communities’ crucial concerns are currently being addressed. In order to decrease the water consumption of the power plant, dry-cooling technology will be used for the next project phases. Moreover, the community engagement strategy will be revised in order to make it culturally more appropriate and allow for genuine measures of transparent dialogue and participation.
By setting community-oriented conditions for the deployment of utility-scale RE projects, we conclude that the approach applied by MASEN in the context of the NOORo solar complex provides many best-practice elements on how to address poverty alleviation and socio-economic development in the transition towards a low-carbon economy. At the same time, lessons have been learnt about the necessity of constructive dialogue and meaningful participation to increase local buy-in at all project stages. In light of the envisioned convergence of climate mitigation under the UNFCCC, the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) within the Post-2015 development agenda, these best-practice elements and lessons learned can enrich the international sustainability debate significantly. They show how utility-scale CSP projects can be designed to establish a mutually beneficial neighborhood between solar projects and local communities that allows for triple wins in regards to climate protection, energy security and sustainable development.
Fatima Ahouli, General Secretary, The Human Touch Association, Morocco
Boris Schinke, Senior Advisor Climate and Energy, Germanwatch, Germany