Renewable Energy Projects Are Fueling Morocco's Bright Future; but There are Challenges to Redefine the Grid
BY NOVID PARSI
PHOTO BY JALAL MORCHIDI/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES
The Noor 1 solar power plant at Ouarzazate in Morocco
Unlike other North African countries,
Morocco doesn’t have an abundance of oil resources. Instead, it has relied on fossil fuel imports for 97 percent of its domestic power needs. Yet Morocco boasts plenty of alternative energy resources— which means rich potential for energy projects, says Amine Araqi Houssaini, PMP, senior project manager for engineering and construction firm Elys Sas, Casablanca, Morocco.
The country’s leaders are eager to transform that potential into project reality. The government aims to have 52 percent of its energy capacity come from renewable sources by 2030. And it’s on track: About 35 percent of the nation’s energy capacity now comes from renewables. Today, Morocco is widely considered a global renewables leader.
That’s in no small part thanks to the US$9 billion Noor Ouarzazate solar energy program. On an area spanning over 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) in Ouarzazate, four solar plants form one of the world’s largest solar farms. It offsets 760,000 tons of carbon emissions and provides 580 megawatts (MW) to meet the electricity needs of over 1 million people. Noor Ouarzazate was completed in 2018, and in 2019 the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy, commonly called Masen, kicked off the bidding process for two more Noor solar farm projects. Once complete, the projects are expected to surpass Noor Ouarzazate, delivering a combined capacity of more than 1,000 MW.
Morocco’s wind energy sector has also been robust. In Tarfaya, Siemens Gamesa’s wind farm—the largest in Africa when it was built—generates 300 MW, enough power for 1.5 million homes. In 2020, the company launched a project to build a 300-MW wind farm in Boujdour, part of a five-farm, 850-MW program that began in 2016.
“This incredible growth is set to continue over the coming years,” says Meriem Lhammoumi, senior project manager, energy, engineering joint venture JESA, Casablanca.
But that’s only if Morocco can address an array of challenges that involves everything from technical to logistical to environmental concerns.
MAKING IT WORK
Renewable energy is only useful if the power grid can connect to it. Currently, many of Morocco’s grid components, such as substations and cables, are not sufficiently sized to handle new renewable power plants.
“So although Morocco has many places with good solar and wind resources, you can’t build power plants there because you can’t connect them to the grid,” Araqi says.
To exponentially expand the number of potential project sites—and for the country’s portfolio of projects to fully realize intended benefits—the government and the utility provider will need to adjust the grid, he adds.
So far, Morocco has allowed private-sector renewable organizations to connect to the high-voltage parts of the power grid. That’s because there are far fewer organizations and stakeholders on the high-voltage end of the energy spectrum (20,000 to 400,000 volts) than the medium-voltage end (1,000 to 20,000 volts), so it was easier to manage their project implementation, according to Araqi.
Moving forward, the government will need to allow renewable power plants to connect to the medium-voltage grid. “That will accelerate the installations and the share of renewable energy in Morocco’s energy sector,” Araqi says. But with more players in the medium-voltage arena, “it will be a challenge both technically and in terms of governance,” he says.
LOCAL AND GLOBAL LEVERS
While Morocco has plenty of renewable energy sources, the sector’s expertise and supplies largely come from elsewhere. But sponsors, especially those of larger public projects, often ask for teams to hire a certain percentage of locals and prioritize local goods and services over imports. Project leaders have to find ways to make the most of local sources and resources while still leveraging a global network.
PHOTO BY FADEL SENNA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Tarfaya wind farm
“Public investors are pushing for the greater integration of Moroccan actors in the renewable energy sector to increase local content and capabilities in projects,” Lhammoumi says.
For example, on a Siemens Gamesa project, in partnership with Nareva and Enel Green Power, to install a 180-MW wind farm in Midelt, the blades for the 50 turbines were manufactured entirely in Morocco—in a factory the company itself inaugurated in 2017. The project is part of the larger 850- MW wind energy construction agreement that’s scheduled to be completed by 2025.
“Morocco’s energy strategy is meant to create jobs, so you have to integrate local suppliers,” says Johannes Pieter Cools, managing director, Siemens Gamesa Morocco, Casablanca. “We give first preference to local talent.”
Yet renewable energy’s specialized equipment, such as solar panels and wind turbines, is largely not yet produced in Morocco. And supplies can often be sourced at a lower cost from other nations, such as China or Vietnam.
“Sometimes there’s a trade-off between localization and cost optimization,” Cools says. “You have to strike the balance between optimizing equipment and involving local suppliers—between what’s politically required and what’s economically efficient. You have to involve local suppliers without putting the project’s business case in danger.”
One way Siemens Gamesa strikes that balance is by encouraging the manufacture of components that can be efficiently produced in Morocco and that could lead to the development of an industrial cluster’s core. In addition, while the project might have to rely more on external sources during construction, it will hire locally during operations. “That provides equal opportunity to local resources,” says Mohamed Ayadi, PMP, onshore project manager, Siemens Gamesa, Casablanca.
To bolster its local workforce, Elys Sas recruits and develops junior talent, such as civil or electrical engineers, Araqi says. As junior project managers, they spend their first few years with the organization getting coached and mentored by senior project managers until they have the skills and competencies to manage their own projects.
Siemens Gamesa has made a commitment to help all its Moroccan project managers earn the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification, Ayadi says. By investing in professional development now, the organization is building a robust talent pipeline for the future.
LAY OF THE LAND
Although Morocco has an extensive network of roads and ports, it doesn’t always have the infrastructure to move massive renewables equipment to the remote locations where it’s needed. “The infrastructure represented a challenge during the transport of our large wind turbines,” Ayadi says.
—Mohamed Ayadi, PMP, Siemens Gamesa, Casablanca
Siemens Gamesa’s Midelt project is a case study in overcoming complex logistics challenges: The project, completed last year, aimed to take full advantage of the mountainous area’s winds. “But this project was very complicated because of the geography,” Ayadi says. The team spent the first full year of the two-year project carefully studying the routes and modifying the roads so they could accommodate the turbines. That arduous task ultimately proved successful: The Midelt farm, the first of the 850-MW program, provides 180 MW, powering 120,000 households.
Similarly, a US$163 million, 90-MW wind farm in Taza, which began construction in 2020, will tap a mountaintop’s wind when commissioned in 2022. But the location came with serious environmental challenges, such as a wide extreme of temperatures. The Elys Sas project team responded by adjusting the schedule when it could—for instance, starting work in the early morning hours and finishing by noon on very hot days.
These projects are helping redefine Morocco’s energy future.
NOOR MIDELT SOLAR FARM
Sponsors: Masen (Morocco), EDF Renewable Energies (France), Masdar (UAE), Green of Africa (Morocco)
Budget: US$2.3 billion
Status: Scheduled to be completed in 2022
The project comprises two solar plants that will combine thermosolar with photovoltaic technology—a hybrid technology that will improve energy production and spur more competitive pricing. The project will provide clean power to more than 1 million people.
BOUJDOUR WIND FARM
Sponsors: Siemens Gamesa (Spain), Enel Green Power (Italy), Nareva Holding (Morocco)
Budget: US$435.4 million
Status: Scheduled to be completed by 2022
With 87 turbines and a capacity of 300 MW, the second of the five projects that make up Siemens Gamesa’s 850-MW wind energy program will save Morocco from almost 2.4 million tons of carbon dioxide each year—about the amount consumed by Casablanca.
TAZA WIND FARM
Sponsors: EDF Renewables (France), Mitsui (Japan), Moroccan energy authorities
1st Phase Budget: US$163 million
Status: Scheduled to be completed by 2022
The project’s first phase will have a capacity of 87 MW—ultimately reaching 159 MW with its second and final phase. The project will generate enough electricity annually for about 350,000 people, or about 70 percent of Taza’s population.
Sponsors: Platinum Power (Morocco), China First Highway Engineering Company (China)
Budget: US$300 million
Status: Launched in 2019 The 108-MW project is one of eight hydroelectric dams that Moroccan energy provider Platinum Power plans to deliver.
MOROCCO-BRITAIN ENERGY LINE
Sponsor: Xlinks (Britain)
Budget: US$21.6 billion
Status: Proposed in 2020 U.K. startup Xlinks wants to tap Morocco’s renewable energy—and send it to Britain. The project would install 10 gigawatts of solar and wind capacity. Although the concept has been floated in the past, Xlinks leaders think the project will succeed where others have failed for two reasons. First, instead of concentrated solar power, it will use less costly photovoltaic power. Second, rather than shipping electricity via interconnectors on mainland Europe, it would run subsea cables from the African coast to Britain, greatly simplifying the permitting process.
Wind turbine transportation for the Midelt wind project
The area also sees a lot of rain. Project managers kept this logistical reality in mind when scheduling tasks, having the team build roads during months that typically have less rain, and when that wasn’t possible, using a treatment to reduce the amount of water in soil.
“We had to implement technical solutions for the extreme climate,” Araqi says. That meant the team had to plan and budget for special equipment that could address potential climate-related scenarios— even if those items on the risk register never materialized. “The risk is very high, so it’s a lot better to prepare and have the equipment on-site,” he says.
Morocco’s renewables sector didn’t escape the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—which meant projects were impacted by everything from procurement delays to new safety protocols to co-located teams suddenly collaborating from afar. Still, teams largely adjusted and maintained momentum rather than have project progress screech to a halt.
Siemens Gamesa, for example, hired experts to train its teams on working remotely and implemented a safety plan to limit the spread of the virus. And when a pandemic-related shutdown in April 2020 stopped on-site work at the Taza wind farm project for two months, the team spent that time putting in place health and safety standards and procedures. The team also communicated the safety protocol to all team members, then ensured they followed it once the project restarted in June, while also monitoring how the protocol affected the timeline for task completion.
“It took more communication, more planning, and more day-to-day control and monitoring,” Araqi says. But by working—rather than idly waiting—during the shutdown, the team was able to hit the ground running once the job site reopened.
Beyond the pressing health concerns, the pandemic has also created and exacerbated resourcing challenges. Morocco’s renewable projects rely on external experts, such as contractors specializing in installing turbines. But from March through September last year, Morocco put a halt to global travel—also stopping the flow of outside expertise.
Siemens Gamesa’s Midelt team worked with Moroccan government authorities to permit some private flights, so it could get the outside experts it needed. “We really minimized delays because of that,” Cools says. In addition, project leaders redeployed some local team members, such as maintenance technicians, and instead had them work on construction.
That adaptive response to a project hurdle isn’t limited to one initiative. Rather, it’s indicative of project managers across Morocco, eager to fuel the county’s ascension as a global alternative energy powerhouse. PM