Morocco inaugurates 160 MW solar CSP plant as first phase of Noor complex

Today King Mohammed VI of Morocco formally inaugurated the Noor 1 CSP plant in Morocco. This is the largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant to come online to date in both the Middle East and North Africa region and the African continent.

This completes the first phase of the Noor complex in Ouarzazate, Morocco. The next two phases of the Noor project total 350 MW, and are scheduled to come online by 2018. This will make Noor the largest CSP complex in the world.

Construction was completed before the end of 2015, roughly in line with developer ACWA Power’s estimate of 28 months, however inauguration was delayed for five weeks for undisclosed reasons. When construction began ACWA Power estimated the total cost of the project at US$820 million, however the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) states that the final cost was closer to $1 billion.

CSP is a solar technology that works by using concentrated sunlight to heat fluids which are then used to make steam to drive turbines. The large majority of CSP deployed to date is in Spain, and while a few large CSP projects have been built in California the Southwestern United States in recent years, the future of the technology is far from certain.

This is for several reasons. First, the fall in cost of solar PV in recent years allowed PV to out-compete CSP on price, which is why several large CSP projects planned for the Southwestern United States have since turned to solar PV.

The World Bank, which along with the African Development Bank and the ClF have provided over US$1 billion in financing for the Noor project, says that the project will lower costs for CSP.

“Independent analysis concludes that the low-cost debt is already driving down the cost of CSP in Morocco by 25% for Noor I and an additional 10% for Noor II and III (achieved in 2015), thus reducing the government subsidy required to bridge the affordability gap for CSP,” notes World Bank in a press statement.

However, it will be difficult for CSP costs to fall far enough to regain competitiveness with PV. The plant’s cost is around US$6 per watt, whereas utility-scale solar PV projects are coming in at under $2 per watt.

Second, in the Southwest and California these projects received strong resistance from local environmental groups, who prioritized conservation over the greenhouse gas reduction benefits that large-scale solar offered, dramatized incidents of birds being killed by the projects, and at times brought in anti-renewable energy “experts” to testify.

Third, the recent bankruptcy of Spanish energy giant Abengoa is a blow to the entire CSP sector, as the company was the largest developer and builder of CSP projects globally.

One of the promises of CSP is the ability to incorporate low-cost energy storage through the use of molten salt. Noor 1 incorporates three hours of molten salt storage, which will allow the plant to meet evening electricity demand.

However, the ongoing fall in the cost of battery storage is threatening to undermine even this advantage. Noor 1 is able to supply electricity at US$0.18 per kilowatt-hour, however SolarCity is building an integrated solar PV and battery storage project in Hawaii which will likewise meet evening demand, at an estimated cost of $0.145 per kilowatt-hour.

Tellingly, the fourth stage of the Noor project will be a 50 MW solar PV plant.