Workers build a solar plant in Morocco

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For decades, Morocco, the only North African nation without large quantities of oil, combed the surrounding desert in search of fossil fuels. But roughly a year and a half ago, the country shifted gears and turned to a resource that exists in abundance across the region: the sun.

North Africa Sun King
North Africa Sun King

Now Europe—long dependent on Middle Eastern oil and Russian natural gas—has begun to look toward the heat of the Sahara for some of its long-term energy needs. By 2050, roughly 15 percent of European energy could be generated by wind and solar-thermal power in North Africa and parts of the Middle East, according to Dii, widely known as Desertec, a group of mostly European companies such as Siemens that are developing clean-energy technology in the region. Although the effort—projected to cost $510 billion—is still in its infancy, analysts say Morocco has far more aggressive investment plans than its regional rivals and is well positioned to become North Africa’s leading provider of renewable energy, especially solar-thermal.

Driving the early success has been sheer necessity. In 2008, when global oil prices hit record highs, Morocco—which imports the bulk of its power—saw energy costs nearly double, to roughly $9 billion annually. Soon after, King Mohamed VI issued a royal decree making the development of alternative energy one of his top priorities. He also put a legal framework in place to encourage European investment and has managed to limit instability in a region known for political tumult.9/12/10: Weely Podcast and Radio Program The Koran, Pakistan, Afghanistan; Iraq Lookback and Ahead; Creative Healthcare; It Makes a Village; 1935: A Very Good Year.

Another advantage for Morocco: geography. The sun over the Sahara is far stronger than it is in Europe. But what distinguishes the country from its desert-dwelling neighbors is its close proximity to Spain. The two countries are separated by less than 16km at some points, and they’re connected by an energy transmission line. Currently the line sends energy from Spain to Morocco, but it could work both ways, and analysts say the line’s existence gives Morocco an edge over its neighbors for access to the European market.

Getting a foothold in that market may take some time, however, due to a shortage of funding. By 2020, Morocco hopes to invest several billion dollars in solar-thermal power and use the technology to drastically increase its domestic energy production. But unlike, say, wind power, which is economically competitive with fossil fuels, solar-thermal often is not, despite subsidies from various international financial institutions. Analysts say the costs of solar-thermal will come down, eventually. “Morocco won’t be a major player in the green-energy market next year,” says Johann Scheidt of Esound Energy, a U.S. consulting firm. “But the pieces are there. This is coming.”

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