Concentrated Solar Power will reduce reliance on energy imports and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Firmly ensconced within the world’s Sunshine Belt (very roughly the tropics and sub-tropics, plus some other bordering regions), Morocco is extremely suited to both develop and export solar energy.

The first solar thermal plant is under construction in the Ouarzazate plateau, south of the Atlas Mountains. Using Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) technology, the full Ouarzazate plant will be a 500 MW facility, one of the largest of its kind in the world, with an initial 160 MW capacity due to come on line in 2014.

With the inauguration of the first phase of the solar energy plan, supported by a $200 million loan from the World Bank, and $97 million from the Clean Technology Fund (CTF), Morocco is now firmly on a path toward a clean energy future, and will serve as a guide and example to the MENA region and the world.

The plant would theoretically allow Morocco to avoid 240,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions — equal to removing 80,000 cars from the roads in one year. That’s nothing to sneeze at. And that’s just one plant. The interesting thing is, it behooves the Arab world to look into solar more, too – they make up a large part of the oil reserves, and the economy of many nations in North Africa and the Mideast depends on it. But as more nations turn to alternative power sources, they’re positioned well to make the switch to solar – plentiful sun, low humidity and vast open spaces for solar installations.

Morocco currently imports 97 percent of its energy needs. The national power grid now relies on coal fired steam plants and oil fired combustion turbines, which emit a host of GHGs, including nitrous oxide (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), both harmful to public health and the environment, along with carbon dioxide (CO2).

Energy demand is set to increase, as Morocco is undergoing strong real GDP growth, with the potential of driving up GHG emissions, which are already higher than the world average.

The investment in CSP will not only provide energy security, by replacing imports with a dependable domestic source of power, but also fulfill the commitment to significant, remedial actions to minimize the contribution to climate change.

The national strategy to combat global warming calls for renewable energy to make up 42 percent of the country’s power generating capacity by 2020. CSP will be the cornerstone of this endeavor, and critical to the further goal of a 40 percent reduction in the use of oil by 2030. It has been calculated that the first phase of the Ouarzazate plant will spare the atmosphere 240,000 tons of CO2 equivalent per year, while the full solar plan will lower annual emissions by 3 million tons.

The Ain Beni Mathar CSP plant in eastern Morocco is already supplying electricity to the national grid. The knowledge and experience gained in the building of the earlier plant will be channeled into Ouarzazate. The lessons learned in completing the first phase will, in turn, inform the construction of the next four sites.

With its abundant sunshine, low humidity and plenty of unused land near road networks and power lines, Morocco is the ideal environment for the development of CSP.

The sheer size of the solar project will allow for cost savings through economies of scale, and, as it progresses, the cumulative acquisition and expansion of the vital skills, resources and knowledge will turn Morocco into an industry leader in the new field of renewable energy.

The stimulative effect of the necessary investment, by encouraging local manufacturers to develop the relevant capacities, and inviting the participation of the private sector through a unique Public-Private Partnership model, will mean the project is a boon to the economy as well as the environment.

The commissioning of the full Ouarzazate plant will be a milestone in Morocco’s transition to an energy exporter. It will also mark significant progress up the value added chain, as it becomes the source of manufactured goods and know-how for a region keen to follow in its footsteps toward a greener future.

While solar power may not be a complete novelty in Morocco, Ouarzazate is the first solar plant to be launched under the World Bank’s MENA CSP Scale-up Program. Along with providing low-cost financing to help realize Morocco’s National Solar Plan, the landmark low-carbon development initiative will fund eight other commercial-scale solar plants and two transmission projects in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia.

The CTF has contributed $750 million to the program, and together with the World Bank is committed to making CSP a reality in MENA.

All eyes are on Morocco, as the first out of the gate. It will set an example for what large-scale investment in CSP can achieve. The world has a stake in the project, for its successful completion will stand as proof that mitigating climate change through the gradual replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy is possible.

"The Ouarzazate project can be compared to the first well that started producing oil in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s – a first step that opened up a massive regional resource for the world," says Jonathan Walters, Director of MENA Regional Strategies and Programs at the World Bank. "MENA’s solar potential is truly global in scale, and Morocco is demonstrating historic leadership with Ouarzazate."