Energy turnaround
Morocco - climate champion with question marks

Das größte Solarkraftwerk der Welt, Noor 1
Das größte Solarkraftwerk der Welt, Noor 1, steht in Quarzazate in der marokkanischen Sahara © picture alliance / SVENSKA DAGBLADET | Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT

Morocco enjoys a reputation in Germany for being a pioneer in climate and environmental policy. The kingdom has earned this reputation over the past decade through an ambitious energy transition and its active participation in international climate negotiations - it even hosted COP 22 in Marrakech in 2016. Since the German government concluded an agreement with Morocco in 2020 on the production and supply of green hydrogen, hopes have also rested on the North African state to also play a decisive role in Germany's energy transition.

At the same time, the transition to the use of sustainable energy sources is an even greater challenge for emerging and developing countries than it is for Germany, for example. They have fewer financial resources at their disposal to handle investments and, at the same time, have to meet the energy needs of growing populations with even more rapidly increasing consumption needs. This is also the case for Morocco. Nevertheless, King Mohamed VI declared environmental policy in general and the energy transition in particular to be priorities for his country at an early stage. The right to "access to water and a healthy natural environment" has even been enshrined in the Moroccan constitution since 2011.

This prioritization is due above all to Morocco's geographical location, which is both a curse and a blessing. Morocco's largest neighbors are the Atlantic Ocean and the Sahara. The country is therefore particularly affected by rising sea levels and the global growth of deserts. Thousands of Moroccans are already affected by droughts and crop failures, abandoning their livelihoods in rural areas. The consequences are an uncontrolled growth of urban centers like Casablanca and rapidly increasing unemployment. Morocco is thus forced to act, as Hakima El Haité, former environment minister and current president of Liberal International, puts it: "The countries that are suffering cannot wait."

On the other hand, Morocco has immeasurable potential for generating hydropower, wind and solar energy. According to an estimate by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), Morocco could meet all of its electricity needs through renewable energy in the medium term, while still exporting green hydrogen to other countries.

Morocco has already achieved a great deal with its ambitious climate and environmental policy. Today, the country already covers almost 20 percent of its electricity needs with renewable energy. If all installed capacities were used, this could even be almost 40 percent. By 2030, more than half of the electricity provided is to be generated by water, wind and sun.

However, Morocco's image as a climate champion is currently suffering cracks. There are massive delays and escalating costs, especially in the construction of large solar plants. The Noor showcase project near Ouarzazate, currently the world's largest solar power plant, is emblematic of this problem. It has been on the grid since 2016 and supplies up to two million people with electricity.

The power plant causes the Moroccan state a deficit of around 80 million euros every year, which is mainly due to the fact that Morocco has backed the wrong horse. This is because Noor is primarily a solar thermal plant. This has the advantage that energy from solar heat can be stored throughout the day and called up in the evening when demand is particularly high. But the rest of the world has invested predominantly in photovoltaics over the past few years, which is why the desired efficiency gains and cost reductions in the solar thermal field have failed to materialize. The decision in favor of the wrong technology in retrospect, which is now also causing delays in another major project in Midelt, is not only bad luck, but also the consequence of centralized control that is not very open to technology. This is the conclusion of a report by the Moroccan Economic and Social Council.

In this context, the experts also criticize the dominance of the state energy agency ONEE (Office nationale d'électricité et de l'eau potable), which hardly allows small and medium-sized energy producers to feed self-generated electricity into the Moroccan grid. As a result, decentralized initiatives and innovative approaches to generating renewable energy are bureaucratically blocked. But it is precisely with smaller projects and the testing of different technologies that innovations and private-sector initiatives could be promoted and a financial fiasco like Noor avoided in the future.

For all its centralized control, Morocco's energy policy nevertheless lacks coherence. Instead of relying entirely on the proven enormous potential of renewables in its own country, Morocco continues to invest in fossil fuels. But since it has no oil or coal reserves of its own, it has to import them at a high cost. In 2018, a new coal-fired power plant went into operation in Safi, and in June, construction work began on a controversial natural gas pipeline. This will connect Morocco with Nigeria along the west coast of Africa in the future. If the country one day supplies green hydrogen to Europe, but continues to meet its own electricity needs largely from coal and gas, little would be gained in terms of climate policy. Germany's hopes for green electricity from the desert should therefore be treated with caution.

Another major task for Morocco is to raise the awareness of its own population for environmental and climate protection. This is evidenced by the sometimes overwhelming quantities of plastic waste on the beaches and along the roads, which have long since become more than just an aesthetic problem, but also contribute to the contamination of water and soil and damage Morocco's attractiveness as a tourist destination.

If Morocco seriously addresses these shortcomings, it can still live up to the claim of being a climate pioneer - and thus show many other emerging and developing countries a successful path to a more sustainable future. In doing so, it could also make use of the energetic support of municipal and regional citizens' initiatives, such as those supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in the coastal city of Essaouira. There, young university professors have rallied the provincial community behind the joint project of a more sustainable city and, among other things, initiated the construction of bicycle paths and the digitization of administration.

Another example of a successful, decentralized approach is the "green mosques" project implemented by GIZ and the Moroccan Ministry of Energy: Tens of thousands of houses of worship are being equipped with solar panels and energy-saving lamps. The responsible imams take this as an opportunity to preach respect for the environment alongside the Koran. On the way to an environmentally conscious society, however, Morocco and its international partners will need a lot of staying power.

For all its centralized control, Moroccan energy policy nevertheless lacks coherence. Instead of relying entirely on the proven enormous potential of renewables in its own country, Morocco continues to invest in fossil fuels. But since it has no oil or coal reserves of its own, it has to import them at a high cost. In 2018, a new coal-fired power plant went into operation in Safi, and in June, construction work began on a controversial natural gas pipeline. This will connect Morocco with Nigeria along the west coast of Africa in the future. If the country one day supplies green hydrogen to Europe, but continues to meet its own electricity needs largely from coal and gas, little would be gained in terms of climate policy. Germany's hopes for green electricity from the desert should therefore be treated with caution.

Another major task for Morocco is to raise the awareness of its own population for environmental and climate protection. This is evidenced by the sometimes overwhelming quantities of plastic waste on the beaches and along the roads, which have long since become more than just an aesthetic problem, but also contribute to the contamination of water and soil and damage Morocco's attractiveness as a tourist destination.

If Morocco seriously addresses these shortcomings, it can still live up to the claim of being a climate pioneer - and thus show many other emerging and developing countries a successful path to a more sustainable future. In doing so, it could also make use of the energetic support of municipal and regional citizens' initiatives, such as those supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in the coastal city of Essaouira. There, young university professors have rallied the provincial community behind the joint project of a more sustainable city and, among other things, initiated the construction of bicycle paths and the digitization of administration.

Another example of a successful, decentralized approach is the "green mosques" project implemented by GIZ and the Moroccan Ministry of Energy: Tens of thousands of houses of worship are being equipped with solar panels and energy-saving lamps. The responsible imams take this as an opportunity to preach respect for the environment alongside the Koran. On the way to an environmentally conscious society, however, Morocco and its international partners will need a lot of staying power.

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Helena von Hardenberg, Presse und Digitale Kommunikation
Helena von Hardenberg
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Phone: +49 30 288778-565