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The Ouarzazate Solar Plant in Morocco: Triumphal 'Green' Capitalism and the Privatization of Nature

[Computer-generated image of what the entire NOOR solar power complex is expected to look like. Image from MASEN/Youtube] [Computer-generated image of what the entire NOOR solar power complex is expected to look like. Image from MASEN/Youtube]

Ouarzazate is a beautiful town in south-central Morocco, well worth visiting. It is an important holiday destination and has been nicknamed the "door of the desert." It is also known as a famed location for international filmmaking, where films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), and Kingdom of Heaven (2005) were shot, as was part of the television series Game of Thrones. That is not all what Ouarzazate has to offer as its name has recently been associated with a solar mega-project that is supposedly going to end Morocco's dependency on energy imports, provide electricity to more than a million Moroccans, and put the country on a “green path.”

If we were to believe the makhzen's (a term that refers to the king and the ruling elite around him) narrative, recycled without nuance or critical reflection by most media outlets in the region and in the West, the project is very good news and a big step toward reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change. However, there is space for scepticism. One recent example of such deceptive talking points was the official celebratory announcements of a "historic" agreement at the COP21 in Paris.

My recent visit to Ouarzazate has prompted me to deconstruct the dominant narrative around this project. In particular, to scratch beneath the surface of the language of "cleanliness," "shininess," and "carbon emission cuts" in order to observe and scrutinize the materiality of solar energy. This analysis examines the project through the lens of the creation of a new commodity chain, revealing its effects as no different from the destructive mining activities taking place in southern Morocco. As Timothy Mitchell argues, analyzing this materiality of such a project can help us trace the kinds of economic and political arrangements that particular forms of energy engender or hinder (Timothy Mitchell 2011).

Last year, I wrote a critique and an assessment of the Desertec solar project, advancing arguments for why it failed and why it was misguided from the start. A similar approach is necessary to understand the political and socio-environmental implications of what is currently being dubbed the largest solar plant in the world. Actually, most of the arguments made in the Desertec piece still stand. The purpose here is not to be gratuitously harsh or cynical, but to raise a few important questions and points in order to contribute an alternative perspective to the hype surrounding existing media coverage.

What seems to unite all the reports and articles written about the solar plant is a deeply erroneous assumption that any move toward renewable energy is to be welcomed. And that any shift from fossil fuels, regardless of how it is carried out, will help us to avert climate chaos. One needs to say it clearly from the start: the climate crisis we are currently facing is not attributable to fossil fuels per se, but rather to their unsustainable and destructive use in order to fuel the capitalist machine. In other words, capitalism is the culprit, and if we are serious in our endeavors to tackle the climate crisis (only one facet of the multi-dimensional crisis of capitalism), we cannot elude questions of radically changing our ways of producing and distributing things, our consumption patterns and fundamental issues of equity and justice. It follows from this that a mere shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, while remaining in the capitalist framework of commodifying and privatizing nature for the profits of the few, will not solve the problem. In fact, if we continue down this path we will only end up exacerbating, or creating another set of problems, around issues of ownership of land and natural resources.

Green Grabbing and the Economy of Repair

The fact that the concentrated solar power (CSP) project in Ouarzazate involves the acquisition of 3000 hectares of communally owned land to produce energy, some of which will be exported to Europe, lends itself to the notion of "green grabbing" as a frame of analysis (Rignall 2012). Green grabbing is defined as the appropriation of land and resources for purportedly environmental ends. It implies the transfer of ownership, use rights and control over resources that were once publicly or privately owned –or not even the subject of ownership– from the poor (or everyone including the poor) into the hands of the powerful. This appropriation is central to the dual, related processes of accumulation and dispossession (Fairhead 2012).

Things green have grown to become part of big business and an integral part of the mainstream growth economy. Part of this transformation is associated with the "neoliberal turn" and the neoliberalization of environmental arenas of governance, as well as the privatization and commoditization of nature (Castree 2008). Green grabs primarily reflect what Fairhead et al. called "the economy of repair." Morocco's solar plan is part of this economy that "has been smuggled in within the rubric of sustainability, but its logic is clear: that unsustainable use 'here' can be repaired by sustainable practices 'there,' with one nature subordinated to the other." (Fairhead 2012) This is clear in the government's discourse of promoting  a global green agenda by harnessing national resources. However, this comes with the support of another environmental narrative that labels the lands of the rural south as marginal and underutilized, and therefore available for investing in green energy (Nalepa and Bauer 2012). This productivist creation of marginality and degradation has a long history that goes back to French colonial times. It was then that degradation narratives were constructed to justify both outright expropriation of land and the establishment of institutional arrangements based on the premise that extensive pastoralism was unproductive at best, and destructive at worst. (See Rignall 2012 and Diana Davis' book "Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa").

These narratives continue to shape the political economy of Morocco's rangelands. They also contribute toward driving small herd owners out of the sector and concentrating wealth in a few hands, along with the commoditization of the livestock market and chronic droughts. That is exactly what happened with the plateau selected for the plant in Ouarzazate, as the discursive framework rendered it "marginal" and open to new "green" market uses: the production of solar power in this case at the expense of an alternative land use - pastoralism - that is deemed unproductive by the decision-makers. This is evident in the land sale that was carried out at a very low price.

The Modalities of Land Appropriation

It is important to first begin with a chronological review of the land acquisition and community dialogue (see in detail in Rignall 2012). The Office National de l'Electricité (ONE) first visited the site outside of Ouarzazate in 2007. This resulted in the announcement of the solar plan in the fall of 2009. The collective land representatives, three from the ethnic community Aït Oukrour, gave their formal approval for the sale in January 2010. The sale was completed in early October 2010, just prior to the king's visit later that month to officially kick-off the Ouarzazate project (MASEN 2011: 18, 20).

Residents of the surrounding communities were never informed of the process of site selection and the terms of the sale has no mandated procedure for consulting with them. This is due to the existence of various deceptive laws with colonial origins that have functioned to concentrate collective land ownership within the hands of an individual land representative, who tends to be under the influence of powerful regional nobles. As such, ordinary people were unaware of what was taking place when the topographer arrived. As a result, they began to ask questions, which largely went unanswered.

The first public meeting on the solar installation took place in November 2010, a month after the king's announcement of the project in Ouarzazate. The meeting consisted of a formal presentation of the environmental impact study in Ouarzazate's most luxurious five-star hotel. Attendees included government officials, NGO representatives, village development associations, and representatives of the local population. Residents themselves, however, were excluded from voicing their opinions. Such meetings masquerading as a "consultation with the people" were only designed to inform the local communities about a fait accompli rather than seeking their approval (Rignall 2012).

The sale price of the collective land to the state was at one Moroccan dirham per square meter (about 10 cents, based on the "marginality" and "non-productivity" of the land). This is in comparison to the price of ten to twelve Moroccan dirhams per square meter, the price at which collective land in Ouarzazate was being rent or sold. People were not happy with this sale and thought the price was very low. One noted that "the project people talk about this as a desert that is not used, but to the people here it is not desert, it is a pasture. It is their territory and their future is in the land. When you take my land. You take my oxygen." (quote adopted from Rignall 2012).

Land was increasing in value throughout the region, a result of speculation and the growing demand for land by agri-business and commercial livestock markets. The land, sold at a cheap one Moroccan dirham per square meter was clearly worth a lot more. As if things were not bad enough, the duped local population were surprised to find out that the money from the sale was not going to be handed to them, but that it would be deposited into the tribe's account at the Ministry of Interior. Additionally, the money would be used to finance development projects for the whole area. They discovered that their land sale was not a sale at all: it was simply a transfer of funds from one government agency to another.

The makhzen was not content in simply acquiring the land to the benefit of the Moroccan state (dividing lines are often blurred between the state and the royal family's holdings). But in addition, it sold it to the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN), a private company with public funds created specifically in October 2010 in order to carry out Morocco's solar plans. These privatizations in the renewable energy sector are not new as of 2005, when a royal holding company called Nareva was created specifically to monopolize markets in the energy and environment sectors and ended up taking the lion's share in wind energy production in the country (Jawad. M 2012).

In essence, the law was bent in order to sell the land to a private entity by way of state agencies. Through this process, the government had effectively privatized and confiscated historical popular sovereignty over land and transformed the people into mere recipients of development; development they are literally paying for, provided it would one day materialize, of course.

This wholesale alienation of land for green credentials from existing claimants reflects the neoliberal restructuring of human-ecological interactions and agrarian socio-economic relations, rights, and authority. It also constitutes one aspect of "accumulation by dispossession," which is the enclosure of public assets by private interests for profit, resulting in greater social inequity (Fairhead et al. 2012).

However, the state of affairs did not go unchallenged. Encouraged by the dynamic of the 20 February Movement for radical change that emerged at the same time as the Arab Uprisings during 2011, people resisted in various ways (complaints, sit-ins, letters...). They mobilized around long-standing grievances about land, water, and the rights to benefit from economically profitable projects, such as the solar one and the mines that dotted the south of the country.

Privatizing Solar Energy: The Role of International Financial Institutions (IFIs)

About nine billion US dollars has been invested in the Noor solar power complex in Ouarzazate, much of it being private capital from international institutions such as the European Investment Bank, World Bank, African Bank of Development, l'Agence Française de Développement, KfWBankengruppe, and backed by Moroccan government guarantees (in case MASEN cannot repay).

There is no surprise regarding the international financial institutions' (IFIs) strong support for this high-cost and capital-intensive project, as Morocco boasts one of the most neoliberal(ized) economies in the region. It is extremely open to foreign capital at the expense of labor rights, and very advanced in its ambition to be fully integrated into the global marketplace (in a subordinate position, that is). In fact, Morocco was the first country in the North African region to sign a structural adjustment package (SAP) with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1983. As is well documented, SAPs are responsible for wreaking economic and social havoc across the global south.

The aforementioned loans are part and parcel of the strategy of the World Bank and other IFIs for the country where they continue to reinforce and justify the core neoliberal orientation and the deepening of pro-market policies. The World Bank has a major funding program in Morocco that covers three specific areas connected to the development of Morocco’s “green” capitalism. The first of these areas is support for the government’s 2008 Plan Maroc Vert (Green Morocco Plan, PMV), which sets out the country’s agricultural plan for the period between 2008–2020. The PMV aims to quintuple the value of export-oriented crops by shifting land away from staple cereal crops, promoting private investment in agriculture, and removing restrictions that stand in the way of private property rights. The second major area of World Bank funding to Morocco is in support of the country's National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), which has, according to some Moroccan activists and scholars, created an artificial and non-independent civil society that helps to deepen the marketization and privatisation of the society (Hanieh 2014). The solar energy project figures in the World Bank's third focus, encompassing a range of policy developments and project-specific loans. The World Bank’s disbursement levels to Morocco reached record levels in 2011 and 2012, with a major emphasis of these loans placed on promoting the use of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) within key sectors.

As has been well documented, PPPs are only a euphemism to outright privatizations, while providing public funds and guarantees. It is essentially about privatizing profits and nationalizing the losses. The Noor-Ouarzazate complex is being built, and will be operated, as a PPP with private partner, ACWA Power International, a Saudi Arabian company. It is strange that such an arrangement has the "public" name on it when the public has no control or shares in the project. This is an entirely private venture when it comes to ownership and management and it seems that the makhzen is transferring public funds to a private company and giving guarantees to pay MASEN loans in case the latter cannot pay, at the risk of further indebting the country and leading it to bankruptcy.

The private partner is responsible for building the infrastructure, the production of energy, and its sale to the Office National de l’Électricité (ONE), with an engagement from the latter to purchase the electricity for a period of twenty to thirty years. PPPs have been extremely costly for the Moroccans, including in the energy sector, where private companies (producing more than fifty percent of electricity in the country) have benefited from generous contracts with ONE since the 1990s. Popular discontent with such companies and arrangements has surfaced recently, October 2015, for example, in huge mobilizations against the company Amendis in northern Morocco against high electricity bills. It seems that production of energy from the sun will not be different and will be controlled by multinationals only interested in making huge profits at the expense of sovereignty and a decent life for Moroccans.

Debts and the Financialization of Nature

The cost of producing energy with CSP is very high. It is at 1.62 Moroccan dirhams for the kWh (kilowatt-hour), compared to around 0.8 Moroccan dirham for photovoltaic (PV) energy. MASEN will be buying the energy from the ACWA consortium at a fixed-price of 1.62 Moroccan dirhams, and selling it at an inferior grid price to ONE, operating therefore at a loss. According to MASEN's president Mustapha Bakkoury (also former general secretary of one of the most royalist political parties, Parti authenticité et modernité, PAM), they will be operating at a loss for at least the next decade until the gap between the purchasing and sale price disappears due to inflation (note this is only speculation). To cover this loss for the next five years, they obtained a World Bank loan of 200 million dollars, deepening the dependence upon multilateral lending and foreign assistance. Several articles reported the existence of some undisclosed energy subsidies from King Mohammed VI in order to prevent the cost from being transferred to energy consumers. One article by the World Bank estimated these subsidies at 31 million dollars per year. But there is a certain ambiguity as to why these funds are needed if ONE is buying at the grid price from MASEN.

The Moroccan monarchy has framed its renewable energy plan as not only an economic development initiative, but also as a potentially export-oriented policy that would further liberalize its economy. There are also expectations that this will draw the country closer to the European Union (EU) by helping increase the percentage of renewables in the EU's energy mix. It is no coincidence that “the Moroccan government designed a new energy strategy in 2009 mostly aligned with the EU’s energy trinity of energy security, competitiveness and environmental sustainability" (Beard 2013). Morocco has joined a number of global and regional renewable energy institutions and programs, including the International Renewable Energy Agency and the Solar Plan for the Mediterranean. It has also stated its interest in joining the MENA region Desertec project, and registered its renewable energy project under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. CDM is part of what is called carbon trading and is one of the false solutions proposed to tackle climate change. CDMs were created to allow wealthier countries classified as "industrialized" to engage in emissions reductions initiatives in poor and middle-income countries, as a way of eliding direct emissions reductions. This mechanism, along with others such as REDD (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) and different offsets participate in putting a price on nature, commodifying it under the rubric of "green capitalism". McAfee (1999) described this process as an attempt to sell nature in order to save it.

At this moment, it is not clear how much the project will earn from CDM, but one must pay attention to how this "green" trading relies on and reproduces the conventional economic notion of differential opportunity costs. In other words, that contributions to the improvement of the global environment should be sought where this is cheapest. Yet, as McAfee (2011) points out, this crucially depends upon and reinforces inequalities between poorer and wealthier landholders, between urban and rural areas, and between the global South and North.

The idea that Morocco is taking out billions of dollars in loans to produce energy, some of which will be exported to Europe when the economic viability of the initiative is hardly assured, raises questions about externalizing the risk of Europe's renewable energy strategy to Morocco and other struggling economies around the region. It ignores entirely what has come to be called "climate debt" or "ecological debt" that is owed by the industrialised North to countries of the Global South, given the historical responsibility of the West in causing climate change. Instead, debt is only legitimate in the other way and plays a role of imperialist control and subordination. As David Harvey observes, decades of easy loans and increasing indebtedness are often quickly followed by a political economy of dispossession.

Is the Project Really Green? The Question of Water Usage

The technology chosen for the Ouarzazate solar plant is the concentrated thermal solar power (CSP) with parabolic troughs. This technology concentrates radiation within mirrors and onto a focal spot where an oily liquid is heated. The collected heat produces steam, which is then converted into electricity through a turbine generator.

The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment conducted by MASEN in 2011 concluded that the most impactful solution for the environmental and societal areas studied is the CSP technology with parabolic troughs. It seems that the thermal storage capability of this option took precedence over other considerations regarding this technology. This capability allows for the adaptation of power generation closer to demand peaks, i.e. in late afternoon. The concept is simple: use energy to heat a product (e.g. molten salts) during the day, and then recover the heat energy to continue to operate the generators after sunset.

The biggest issue with this technology is the extensive use of water that comes with the wet cooling stage. Unlike photovoltaic (PV) technology, CSP needs cooling. This is done either by air cooled condensers (dry cooling) or high water-consumption (wet cooling). Phase I of the project will be using the wet cooling option and is estimated to consume from two to three million cubed meters of water annually (Kouz 2011). Water consumption will be much less in the case of a dry cooling (planned for phase II): between 0.73 and 0.88 million cubed meters. PV technologies require water only for cleaning solar panels. They consume about 200 times less water than CSP technology with wet cooling and forty times less water than CSP with dry cooling.

One questions the rationality of such a choice in a semi-arid region like Morocco that suffers from an acute water stress and is slated to lose its water resources by 2040. Given this situation, which has been exacerbated by an ongoing severe drought (being tackled by a massive and expensive  government drought recovery plan), the question that begs to be asked: where are they going to get the water from and is this use of water sustainable in the mid to long-run? The answer is that the plant is already using the water from a nearby dam called Al Mansour Addahabi. According to authorities, they will be using less than one percent of the average dam capacity.

The water inputs to the dam vary between fifty-four and 1300 million cubed meters, with an average of 384 million cubed meters (based on the last twenty-five years). This water is usually used for irrigation at a level of 180 million cubed meters per year, drinking water at four million cubed meters per year, while evaporation consumes around sixty million cubed meters per year.

Even if the solar plant is only using one percent of the average dam capacity, the water consumption is still significant and can become a thorny problem at times of extreme drought when the dam contains only fifty-four million cubed meter. At such times, the dam waters will not be sufficient to cover the needs of irrigation and drinking water,  making the water usage for the solar plant deeply problematic and contentious. This issue is even more important when the water needs in Ouarzazate are taken into consideration, which will reach 840 million cubed meters by 2020, of which 808 will be allocated to agriculture and thirty-two for the provision of drinking water.

During the investigation of this water issue, no document mentioning water sale to or purchase by MASEN was uncovered. Regardless, in an arid region like Ouarzazate, this appropriation of water for a supposedly green agenda constitutes another green grab, which will play into and intensify ongoing agrarian dynamics and livelihood struggles in the region.

Contradictions in Morocco's "Sustainable" Development Model

Morocco will host the climate talks (COP22) this year in November and its international reputation rests on its renewable energy plan. For this purpose, the Ouarzazate solar complex will be used as a flagship project to embellish the "green" facade of the makhzen and enhance its international standing by attracting more political and strategic rents at the expense of democratic and radical change.

However, scratching slightly under the surface will allow us to see through this deceptive narrative. If the Moroccan state was really serious about its green credentials, why is it then building a coal-fired power plant at the same time, which represents an ecocide in-waiting for the already-polluted town of Safi? Why is it also ignoring the devastating environmental and social effects of the mining industry in the country? One notable example is the long-standing community struggle in Imider (140 kilometres east of Ouarzazate) against the royal holding silver mine (Africa's most productive silver mine), which is polluting their environment, grabbing their water, and pillaging their wealth.


Despite the allure of the solar mega-project, it is incumbent upon the radical left and the environmental/climate justice movement to critically approach the makhzen's propaganda and the emergent dominant global discourse around environmental governance to which it is linked.  Activists must ask the relevant-as-ever questions that will shift our focus to the materiality of solar energy: who owns what? Who does what?  Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? And whose collective, public good is being served? Answering these questions through a distributive justice lens, while taking account the colonial and neo-colonial legacies, and issues of race, class, and gender will reveal the numerous parallels between the CSP plant and the extractive industries that are more obviously destructive. Like these industries, the CSP problematically occupies space, denying people sovereignty over the land, and robbing them of resources in order to concentrate the value created in the hands of the predatory makhzen circles and private companies, both Moroccan and non-Moroccan.

In order to design and implement just and truly green projects, we need to recapture nature from the clutches of market mechanisms and recast the debate around issues of justice, accountability, and the collective good away from market logics that compartmentalize, commoditize and privatize our livelihoods and nature. At the center of this are meaningful forms of local engagement and proper consultations where communities and populations are free to give or deny their prior and informed consent.

[This article was translated to French and Arabic on Nawaat.]


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