This year Morocco became home to one of the world’s biggest solar power plants.
The massive complex is located at the foot of the High Atlas mountains, 10km from Ouarzazate – a city nicknamed the door to the desert. With around 330 days of sunshine a year, it is an ideal location.
Hundreds of curved mirrors, each as big as a bus, are ranked in rows covering 1,400,000 sq m (15m sq ft) of desert, an area the size of 200 football fields.
As well as meeting domestic needs, Morocco hopes one day to export solar energy to Europe.
The Ouarzazate site in Morocco is one of several across Africa and similar plants are being built in the Middle East – in Jordan, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The falling cost of solar power has made it a viable alternative to oil even in the most oil-rich parts of the world.
The first phase of the Moroccan plant, has already surpassed expectations in terms of the amount of energy it has produced. It is an encouraging result in line with Morocco’s goal to reduce its fossil fuel bill by focusing on renewables while still meeting growing energy needs that are increasing by about 7% per year.
Morocco has secured funding from Europe with the European Union contributing 60% of the cost for the Ouarzazate project, for example.
The country plans to generate 14% of its energy from solar by 2020 and by adding other renewable sources like wind and water into the mix, it is aiming to produce 52% of its own energy by 2030.
This puts Morocco more or less in line with countries like the UK, which wants to generate 30% of its electricity from renewables by the end of the decade, and the US, where President Obama set a target of 20% by 2030.
The mirrors focus the Sun’s energy onto a synthetic oil that flows through a network of pipes. Reaching temperatures up to 350C (662F), the hot oil is used to produce high-pressure water vapour that drives a turbine-powered generator.
The plant keeps generating energy after sunset, when electricity demands peak. Some of the day’s energy is stored in reservoirs of superhot molten salts made of sodium and potassium nitrates, which keeps production going for up to three hours. In the next phase of the plant, production will continue for up to eight hours after sunset
Seven thousand flat mirrors surrounding the tower will all track and reflect the sun’s rays towards a receiver at the top, requiring much less space than existing arrangement of mirrors. Molten salts filling the interior of the tower will capture and store heat directly, doing away with the need for hot oil.
Similar systems are already used in South Africa, Spain and a few sites in the US, such as California’s Mojave desert and Nevada. But at 86ft (26m) tall, Ouarzazate’s recently erected structure is the highest of its kind in the world.