Solar thermal power plants (CSP, concentrated solar power) in North Africa not only supply renewable energy to meet the growing electricity demand, they can also promote regional development.

With Morocco’s electricity demand growing rapidly, solar thermal power plants could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offer a sustainable solution to many social issues. EurActiv Germany reports.

Solar thermal power plants (CSP, concentrated solar power) in North Africa not only supply renewable energy to meet the growing electricity demand on the continent and in the southern Mediterranean region, they can also promote regional development.

This is demonstrated by a study jointly produced by the development NGO Germanwatch and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy.

The authors selected the 160 megawatt CSP power plant NOORo I in the city of Ouarzazate with 100,000 residents in southern Morocco as a test case for investigation.

“In the context of the new development objectives stemming from the Arab Spring, it is increasingly important to ensure that investments in new energy infrastructures address the needs and aspirations of citizens,” Boris Schinke and Jens Klawitter, the authors of the study, write.

Significant benefits for social development

They investigated if and how solar thermal power plants may also have sustainable social and economic benefits for the local population, and to what extent the CSP project is having negative effects on the basic livelihoods and local needs of residents.

The study produced mainly positive results. “New jobs and training and skill development measures have developed for the bordering communities as well as improvements to communal welfare, educational and healthcare facilities,” said Boris Schinke from Germanwatch.

The power plant has also had indirect positive effects. Stronger family ties, social support from reversed migratory flows and an increased public interest in renewable energy are only some of the positive aspects the study indicates.

The project is a part of the Moroccan solar energy programme (NOOR), which is intended to ensure the energy supply for the population and secure the productive sectors of the economy.

95% of Morocco’s primary energy demand is currently supplied by external sources. The country now hopes to change this, though energy demand in Morocco is steadily rising.

From 2002 to 2010, alone, it increase by an average of around 7%. The country’s primary energy needs are expected to increase three-fold by 2030, while demand for electricity is likely to jump to four times its current level.

As a result, the country has made securing energy supply a priority in its energy strategy for 2010-2030 and hopes to increase its share of renewables to 42% of total energy demand by 2020.

In comparison, the EU’s binding target for renewables requires that the member states cover 20% of their energy needs with renewable energy sources by 2020.

>>Read: Member states on track to meet renewable energy targets, EU report finds

In June, a progress report from the European Commission indicated that last year, the share of renewables was at 15.3%.

No cure-all for Morocco’s energy problems

Compared to the negative aspects of supporting fossil fuels or operating conventional power plants, NOORo I barely has any drawbacks, said Peter Viebahn from the Wuppertal Institute.

But despite the positive results of the study, such CSP projects do not provide an overall solution for Morocco’s urgent development needs, he warned.

In addition, he said, fears over possible effects the power plant may have on the local water supply should be taken seriously. “And so far the lack of training in local facilities with regard to the requirements for workers is an obstacle,” Viebahn pointed out.

Increasing the share of renewables, the study finds, also requires certain social decisions in Morocco.

“Similar to the debates in Germany on grid expansion, our investigations have shown that the citizens living near the Moroccan power plant demand a higher level of transparency in communication and timely opportunities to have their say in the project’s further design,” said Germanwatch analyst Schinke.

Near the province’s capital Ouarzazate, two more blocks are planned to become operational by 2019. As a result it will soon host the largest solar thermal power plant in the world contributing 500 megawatts of electricity to the grid, enough to supply more than 1.2 million people with electricity.

Compared to conventional power generation, the new plan reduces annual emissions by at least 600,000 tonnes of CO2 and the country saves money by tapping into its own inexhaustible source of energy.