Neoliberal Logics in Renewable Energy Imaginaries: The Development of Morocco’s Noor Ouarzazate Solar Power Plant
Khaoula Bengezi, York University
In 2009, the government of Morocco declared a shift away from fossil fuels—95 percent of which is imported—with a goal of 42 percent of total energy usage to be provided by renewable energy by 2020 (Foroudi 2021; Raouf 2013). While Morocco did not reach the intended target by 2020, it succeeded in reaching 37 percent of green energy production and now aims for 52 percent renewable energy by 2030 (ESFC Investment Group 2022; Foroudi 2021). To achieve this ambitious goal the government of Morocco created three agencies, The Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy (MASEN), the Research Institute for Solar Energy and New Energies (IRESEN) and the Moroccan Agency for Energy Efficiency (AMEE). All have received extensive funding from national, regional, and international banks, as well as private corporations (Beacom and Moulton 2020).
The Noor Ouarzazate Power Plant (NoorO) has been at the forefront of Morocco’s plan to reach its ambitious 2030 goal and propel Morocco into a new modernity fueled by renewable energy. The four-phase massive solar power project, which spans over 3,000 hectares of land in the region of Ouarzazate, has received regional and international attention as one of the “world’s largest concentrated solar power” (CSP) plants (Johanson 2021). Through this project, which is “implemented via a public-private partnership, between MASEN and the [Arabian Company for Water and Power] ACWA Power,” Morocco has sought to pave the way regionally within Africa and internationally as a leader in renewable energy alternatives (Bakkoury 2020; Okpanachi et al. 2022). According to the Climate Investment Fund’s feature story on the NoorO power plant, the 2 million mirrored panels are meant to provide over 2 million Moroccans with clean energy, reduce carbon emissions by 760 thousand tons per year, and potentially catalyze the construction of more “de-risked large CSP solar plants around the world” (Ouarzazate: Lighting Up the Sky 2018).
Despite these rosy predictions, Morocco’s visions of sustainable development have been dimmed by the privileging of a public-private neoliberal development model that aims to sustain and further imbricate development in neoliberal extractivist logics. This paper uses the NoorO solar project to examine the role of expertise and decision making within the global environmental governance and sustainable development nexus through a multiscalar approach.
Development Models and Neoliberal Logics
Western development models like modernization theory, which emerged within Western academic spaces in the 1950s and 1960s, argue that the key to development is for countries to adopt Westernstyle institutions, values, and technology (Rostow 1960; Roxborough 1988). This model continues to dominate the crafting of development policies and practices and wreaks havoc on developing countries (Mitchell 2002; Goldman 2005). As Timothy Mitchell (2002) has demonstrated, development discourses were introduced and sustained in the Global South through the privileging of the rule of experts and their socio-technical imaginings. Mitchell analyzes the ways in which neoliberal economic expertise and techno-scientific development projects are intertwined and how they are presented as objective and logical. Mitchell goes on to warn that, “we should not mistake this economy for a freestanding object but examine it as the relationship between expertise and the world to which it refers—a world that, on closer inspection, never has the simplicity, logic, or fixedness that the expertise of economics assumes” (Mitchell 2002: 300). Mitchell points to the neoliberal fixation CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS IN AFRICA 7 on economic impartiality as the guiding force for development and explains the importance of adopting a critical lens in order to see how this construct underlies biased and often Eurocentric expert opinions.
Dependency theorists have argued that the visions and imaginaries of Western experts under the instructions of Western elites and institutions have constructed a development framework that is reflective of Western colonial administration and constitutes a form of economic imperialism (Amin 1977; Handelman 2016). This argument has been further strengthened and articulated by anti-development and post-development theorists who argue that development paradigms in Western academic knowledge production are rooted in colonial imaginaries of the legitimate and capable Western doer and the illegitimate, incapable and backward Global South. According to these scholars, development is an elitist project aimed at benefiting the few while disempowering those living in the margins (rural areas and slums) of the Global South (e.g., Escobar 1995, 2018; Esteva and Prakash 1998; Matthews 2004; Rahnema and Bawtree 1997).
This critical perspective points to a key question: Who makes the call within global environmental governance and sustainable development and what are the consequences of expert rule? Legitimacy and expertise within global environmental governance is similarly constituted through power relations—the privileging of Eurocentric Western expertise within global environmental governance reconstitutes asymmetrical power relations within the realm of sustainability governance. These inequities expand beyond state-to-state interactions to encompass governance organizations, corporations, and civil society actors (Bexell 2020; Boehmer-Christiansen 1999; Ervine 2007; Gupta & Sanchez 2012; Sanwal 2015). Thus, global responses to climate change, which on their face seem to be based on scientific expertise and modernizing aspirations, are in fact rooted in development logics of the past that privilege Eurocentric assumptions about what knowledge is, who possesses it, and who holds the power and resources to disseminate it nationally, regionally, and globally.
The World Bank and Elite Actors in Morocco’s Transition Towards Renewable Energy
The World Bank, one of the primary funders of climate mitigation technologies in the Global South and particularly in Morocco, is at the forefront of the global renewal of developmentalism and neoliberalism. The NoorO power plant is not just a localized project of the Moroccan nation-state but rather the product of a vision of many beyond Morocco due to its transformative potential in ushering in a new modernity locally, regionally, and globally fueled by renewable energy. Thus, the project needs to be analyzed as a product of global environmental governance and expertise at the supra-national, national and local level to fully grasp the intricacies and tensions involved in constructing a new modernity of climate mitigation technologies.
The World Bank has been one of the key players in sustainable development as it has attempted to revamp its image through the creation of the Climate Investment Fund and the promotion of sustainable development and climate financing. The World Bank, however, continues to rely on Western experts and funding from Western states, which have monopoly over its activities. Scholars have argued that the World Bank has “become leading international agents of global environmental ‘governance’ and ‘sustainable development’” (Boehmer-Christiansen 1999: 27). Multiple stakeholders are invested in the dissemination and actualization of the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including corporations as private funders and international funding agencies.
Scholars have rightly criticized the SDGs as removed from local realities and community knowledge and thus as fundamentally flawed (e.g., Cummings et al. 2017; Leach 2013; Ramalingham 2015). Diane Stone (2003), for example, argues that the power of the Bank to lead the charge of sustainable development initiatives and global environmental governance generally is rooted in its attempts to disseminate a universal model of expertise on world issues. According to Stone CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS IN AFRICA 8 (2003) and Michael Goldman (2005), the World Bank has utilized a great deal of its resources for the dissemination of information and has been alternately called the “Knowledge Bank.” This dynamic can be seen in the early days of the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings. Sonja A. Boehmer-Christiansen (1999: 28) discusses the leaked documents from the 1998 COP3 in Buenos Aires that reveal the Bank’s ambitious goal “to take control of the international carbon trading market worth [at the time] 90 billion pounds by 2020.”
Morocco’s dependency on the imported development models of neoliberal institutions like the World Bank began in the early 1980s, when the kingdom was “forced to submit to shock therapy under the auspices of the unholy trinity (International Monetary Fund, IMF; World Bank; and World Trade Organisation). In 1983, a programme of structural adjustment was negotiated with the IMF and the World Bank, one of the first plans of its kind in the region” (Catusse 2009). In the case of Morocco’s renewable energy projects, another one-of-a-kind public-private partnership model features regional and international development banks like the African Development Bank, the Climate Investment Funds, the World Bank, the European Commission, European Development Bank, KfW, and the French Development Agency.
The Noor Ouarzazate regional and international funders, as well as Moroccan stakeholders, have all utilized grandiose scientific imaginaries to substantiate and legitimize the NoorO project as a model of sustainable development governance and thus a win-win-win for stakeholders.1 Their approach is clearly visible in how the project has been advertised and presented on their websites, in interviews and in policy documents and reports. For instance, upon entering the Climate Investment Fund’s “Ouarzazate, Morocco” webpage, the viewer is immediately drawn to several futuristic animations of the NoorO solar power plant. The caption plastered across the moving visuals reads, “Lighting up the Sky.” This caption speaks to the grandeur of the NoorO plant, which can be seen from space and is the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world. Such socio-technical imaginings (Jasanoff and Kim 2015) embody wider visions of global futures that rely on the idea of a linear and clear progression from fossil fuel energy and its pervasive destruction of the Earth to clean technologies and their ability to save the world.
These visions of transforming the desert are not new. They are rooted in socio-technical Orientalist imaginaries that exaggerate the threat of desertification and minimize the desert’s potential (Bengezi 2022). Such imaginaries are almost always backed by scientific studies and promote technoscientific development solutions based on objective scientific truths despite their fluidity, which allows organizations to shape them to fit the molds of current neoliberal objectives. For example, the World Bank changed its tune regarding the threat of desertification over time. A report produced in 1988 titled “Dryland Management: The ‘Desertification’ Problem” (Nelson 1988) claimed that a study conducted in 1975 to show how “the Sahara Desert is advancing south at 5.5 km/year” was in fact disputed and that there is little evidence to support it.. More recently, the World Bank has produced a report titled “Driving Transformation: A Climate Roadmap for the Middle East and North Africa” (2022) that described desertification as “encroaching” and solar energy as a necessary area of transformation to prevent desertification, among other consequences of climate change. The report ends by stating, “at this critical moment for battling climate change, we look forward to working with policymakers, members of the private sector, and development practitioners to create a greener, more resilient MENA.”
While desertification is a real threat to the Maghrib (see Bengezi 2022), it is increasingly weaponized by international, regional, and national actors using win-win logics, for example, by claiming that the high levels of solar radiation in desert areas can be harnessed to produce large amounts of clean energy, while also mitigating the impacts of desertification. The potentials of solar energy imaginaries are becoming realities as national governments and stakeholders embrace them, with Ouarzazate as the chosen site for Morocco’s first renewable energy development project. The Libyan and Tunisian governments have also announced solar power plants (Bellini 2022; Takouleu 2020).
Grandiose Dreams and Mediocre Realities
The NoorO project has been recognized by the World Bank and the African Development Bank Group as a model for other developing countries to follow in their pursuit of renewable energy. They praise the project’s innovative financing mechanism, its successful public-private partnership, and its ability to mobilize significant investments from both the private sector and international development finance institutions. The World Bank and the African Development Bank also highlight the project’s positive impact on local communities, which includes the creation of jobs and the promotion of environmental sustainability (African Development Bank Group 2019; Climate Investment Funds 2022). For instance, the African Development Bank trumpeted in a headline that, “After Success in Morocco, the African Development Bank Develops Another Giant Solar Power Plant in the Sahel” (2021). Moreover, national officials and stakeholders initially publicized the project as a template for building African capacity for renewable technologies as well as providing national benefits by lowering energy bills and supporting community development initiatives (Bakkoury 2020; King 2022; Prisco 2016).
However, under the shiny headlines and rhetoric of elite actors is a darker reality. As Amin Belghazi and Mohammed Sammouni (2020) and Sarah Ryser (2019) note, the communities living in proximity to the NoorO plant have benefited little from the project. Instead, these rural communities have seen a decrease in access to water in an already waterscarce area because maintaining CSP technologies requires water for cooling (Bengezi 2022). Moreover, promises of lower energy bills have not materialized, and the project has put Morocco’s vulnerable economy further into deficit.
From the start of the project, ACWA Power sold every kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy at 1.62 Moroccan Dirhams (MDH) which meant that the cost of solar power exceeded that of coal and wind power, sold at 0.6 DH (Gharbaoui 2021). According to Hayat Gharbaoui (2021), when looking at the first three phases of the NoorO project, prices per kWh varied from 1.62 to 1.38 MDH and sold at 0.85 to the National Office of Electricity and Drinking Water (ONEE). MASEN bears the difference between the purchase price at ACWA and the sale price at ONEE. Concerns over Morocco’s choice of the more expensive but newer technology of concentrated solar power over photovoltaics (PV) is not new and has been questioned by various Moroccan and regional news agencies and journalists (Belghazi and Sammouni 2020; Faloui 2023; Raouf 2013). This widely criticized decision has dimmed the light on the potential of grandiose large-scale solar energy power plants.
Mustapha Bakkoury, the “soon to be ousted” president of MASEN has taken the fall for the project’s mishaps, framing the problem as that of a single individual to avoid direct scrutiny of the underlying conceptual problems (Faloui 2023). Maghreb Intelligence, for instance, reported that “Bakkoury was aware of this fact even before the launch of the second and third phases, but he did not want to take responsibility for it” (ibid.). They go on to point the finger solely at Bakkoury by stating that, “he took the easy way out by sticking with concentrated solar power, which was approved by international—mainly German—donors, even though he could have switched to photovoltaics, which had become more competitive.” It is true that CSP technology was studied and shown to have both environmental and economic pitfalls prior to Morocco’s shift towards CSP technology. Among those studies is a report by the United States’ National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which has noted both environmental and cost limitations of CSP technologies (International Energy Agency 2010; National Renewable Energy Laboratory 2013). Such limitations were noted in 2010 and include issues around land acquisition, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and economic cost (ibid.).
Holding Bakkoury solely responsible for the failures of Noor Ouarzazate distracts from the underlying issue of neoliberalism’s continued hold on international development through the avenue of climate mitigation development projects. The World Bank has praised Morocco for adopting the public-private partnership model even though it has played a role in Morocco’s current and accumulating deficit. Ahmed Zahran, the CEO of the Egyptian start-up Karm Solar, argues that the struggles of Morocco’s solar power projects are due to the neoliberal public-private partnership model that developing states have relied on in constructing renewable energy projects (Africa News 2021). According to Zahran, “The companies are focused on selling electricity to their buyer and are not interested in contributing to the infrastructure of the countries in which they operate.” As Morocco works towards launching the second massive solar power project, which is projected to be larger than the Noor Ouarzazate project, many questions remain about Morocco’s renewable energy future and whether it is truly sustainable or just another neoliberal development trap.
Like the old modernity that served the West and national elites economically, the new modernity of renewable energy alternatives reproduces power asymmetries that further marginalize the Global South while sustaining and enriching the Global North and elite actors. Neoliberalism needs new markets to prey on for its continued sustenance within the global arena. One such area that is eliciting concern worldwide is the increasing need to address climate change. Climate mitigation technologies, like CSP solar power plants, have been paraded as a frontier solution to providing the world with electricity while only needing to populate portions of the “barren” desert. However, expertise rooted in Eurocentric and Orientalist imaginaries that continue to uphold extractivist neoliberal development models have failed to light up Morocco as the NoorO project intended. Rather, the project has done little to address social inequalities or aid in reducing Morocco’s dependence on imported fuel and has instead led to environmental, social, and economic pitfalls. Have the shortcomings of the NoorO project made Morocco’s ambitious dreams a cautionary tale? On the surface it has, especially given that the second CSP project slated to start construction in 2019 in Midelt has stalled in recent years due to cost, technology use, and the governance of the project (El Karmouni 2022). That project will also utilize a hybrid of solar technology that encompasses both CSP and PV; it has been reported by Ghassan Wail El Karmouni (2022) that the project will rely on PV technology due to its lower cost. However, it will also continue to rely on the private-public partnership that undoubtedly led to the mishaps of the Noor Ouarzazate project (ibid.). As such, what remains to be seen is how local communities, who have given the now relaunched project over 4,000 hectares of land, will benefit. Will this project, costing 20 billion dirhams, reignite Morocco’s solar futurities or dim it with further debt?