When completed, the site will cover an area larger than the country's capital, Rabat, and will make Morocco’s solar plant the largest in the world. It is hoped that it will eventually produce so much electricity that the nation will not only be able to meet its own energy needs, but also export the excess to Europe. The first section of the plant was turned on this afternoon by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, and is expected to start churning out 160 megawatts.
Built near the town of Ouarzazate in central Morocco, the plant uses solar thermal technology, rather than photovoltaic solar panels. Solar thermal technology uses mirrors, which track the movement of the Sun, to concentrate solar rays to heat oil in pipes. The hot oil is used to create steam in order to power turbines, creating the electricity. The advantage of using this technique is that the oil can then be used to melt salt, which holds onto the energy, and can be used to produce power even after the Sun has gone down.
The first stage of the plant has an astonishing 500,000 mirrors, which track the sun as it moves across the sky. Anadolu Agency/Getty
The section that has just been turned on, called Noor 1, is expected to provide enough energy for hundreds of thousands of homes, and will be producing electricity for up to three hours after the Sun has set. When the full plant is up and running by 2018, it will be creating 560 megawatts of electricity, and is expected to power 1.1 million houses. At this stage, it is expected to be running 20 hours a day and will cover an area of 24.3 square kilometers (9.4 square miles).
By focusing the energy of the Sun onto a single point, the plant is able to heat the oil up to extremely high temperatures. This is used to melt the salt at 500°C (932°F), which is then stored in massive tanks. The solar plant is just one aspect of the nation’s ambition to generate 42 percent of its electricity needs from renewables (through a mixture of wind, hydro, and solar power) by 2030 – though it is expected to up this to 52 percent at the next climate meeting. Compare this to the U.K., a much richer country, which has pledged to generate 30 percent of its electricity from renewables over the same period of time.
So far, the power plant has had $3.9 billion (£2.7 billion) in funding, with around $1 billion (£690 million) coming from a German investment bank and $400 million (£276 million) from the World Bank. It is hoped that as the price of solar power continues to drop, it will become more and more viable to build even more of these projects, and move further away from fossil fuels.
This article was edited on 08/02 to correct Noor 1 will not provide power for a million homes, but that is the expected output when the entire project is up and running.