Morocco is key testing ground for Desertec solar-farm project

A planned €400 billion renewable energy network to criss-cross the Mediterranean is to have its first test in Morocco.

Morocco is to be the testing ground for a planned €400 billion renewable energy network to criss-cross the Mediterranean.

Desertec, the name of the initiative to connect solar and wind farms in the Middle East to European consumers, this month signed up its first government partner for a solar farm that will export power to Europe through an undersea electricity line.

The partnership is with a public-private body called the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen).

"Our cooperation with Masen may spark a new era of cross-continent cooperation," says Paul van Son, the chief executive of Dii, the consortium of more than 50 companies behind Desertec.

The Moroccan project is a key test for Desertec, which has won the support of the corporate world but has yet to gain large-scale backing from governments. It is counting on nations from both sides of the Mediterranean to build the power plants, lay down the transmission lines and, most crucially, put down the cash.

Morocco, the only North African nation without oil resources, is seen as a promising site for renewables because of its abundant sunshine and its government's eagerness to embrace solar energy.

In 2009 the kingdom unveiled a US$9bn (Dh33.05bn) plan to build five solar plants that would produce 2,000 megawatts of electricity - equal to the total generation capacity of Casablanca. Those plants could produce more than a third of the nation's capacity by 2020, according to the government.

With a civil war dragging on in Libya and post-revolutionary governments in Egypt and Tunisia, Morocco is seen as a relatively stable alternative to its neighbours. There have been protests in the country but no change in its leadership.

The UAE is also eyeing the Moroccan market.

In December, the government-owned Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, also known as Taqa, selected Morocco as the location for its first potential venture in renewable energy through a bid to build a 500mw solar plant as part of a consortium.

That plant is to be the first step in the Desertec plan, with Masen now selecting builders and investors for the solar farm scheduled to be completed by 2015. By then the site could feed 340mw a day to Spain, reversing the direction of the Spain-Morocco power line.

"We think in the long term that Morocco can become one of the net exporters to the Spanish market," says Isidoro Tapia Ramirez, the general secretary of the Spanish Institute for Energy Diversification and Saving, Spain's renewable energy agency.