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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Morocco Solar Surge

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Peter Thomson reports from Morocco on a sudden surge in solar power. An innovative financing model is bringing together large corporations, solar entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and Moroccan residents to supply affordable power in rural areas.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You've probably seen the pictures of Earth from space at night: a black void broken only by clusters of electric lights. It will be easy to assume that these points of light are the only inhabited places on earth, because for most people electricity equals civilization. But many people inhabit the dark spaces as well. In fact, of the Earth's six billion humans, one third have no access to reliable sources of electricity. Bringing power to these people in a way that's both affordable and environmentally sound is a major challenge. In many places, cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity are the best way to go. But the economics of solar power are complex, and so-called photovoltaic cells are expensive. In a few of the world's dark spaces, though, that's starting to change. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson recently visited Morocco, which is in the midst of a solar power surge. This report is the second in our series on solar power in the developing world.

(Moroccan music plays)

THOMSON: It's early evening in the Place Djemaa el Fna, the marketplace of central Marrakech. Audiences gather in tight clusters around musicians, snake charmers and storytellers. Throngs of people surge through the plaza stores, music shops and food stalls, and the labyrinth of ancient streets beyond: veiled Muslim women, traditional men in hooded robes, more modern Moroccans in jeans and jackets and tourists in T-shirts.

WOMAN: English? (Men laugh) No? (Speaks in Arabic)

(Musicians play to applause)

THOMSON: The plaza is a cyclone of sound, color and culture. And light: neon, fluorescent, incandescent. This is Morocco's Times Square.

(Music continues; fade to wind up and under)

THOMSON: But you don't have to leave Morocco's cities far behind to find yourself in a deep, dark place. Driving through the countryside at night, the darkness is striking. Even near many schools, houses and mosques, there's barely a light to be seen, and rarely more than one illuminated window per house. Almost a third of Morocco's 26 million citizens have no electricity, and many of them have grown tired of waiting.


THOMSON: Under a bright February sun, a man hammers braces into the beams of a thatched roof. The braces hold a cable that runs from a darkened doorway up onto the roof, where it connects to a small blue and silver photovoltaic array.

BENALLOU: We will have electricity from the array today.

THOMSON: Abdelhanine Benallou is the president of SunLight Power. His crew is installing a 50-watt solar system at the home of Abdallah Ballouti. This household is pretty well off by local standards. The family raises cattle and grows wheat, barley and beans on their farm on an isolated hillside east of the city of Fez. But Mr. Benallou says that in remote areas like this, even wealthier residents aren't hooked up to the power grid.

(Children's voices in the background)

BENALLOU: All this region is not economically feasible for the grid. (Hammering in the distance) Depending on the landscape, 100 meters from the grid it starts being not economical. And also, it's not only landscape. You have to look at the dispersion of the population. It's not one cluster to which you can draw one line. If you look at this, for example, you're going to have a big line going in this direction, in that direction, etc. And you can't do that.

THOMSON: Without a connection to the grid, Mr. Ballouti’s family has been spending about $30 a month on other sources of energy.

BALLOUTI: [Speaks in Arabic]

BENALLOU: So he was using exclusively for lighting butane gas, and for TV he had a TV set and he was using car batteries that he would recharge on diesel somewhere.

THOMSON: Now the family will be able to stop lugging around batteries and gas canisters. They're replacing them both with a solar electricity system for less money -- an initial deposit of about $40 and a monthly fee of $20.

(Hammering, voices)

THOMSON: The SunLight Power crew has promised Mr. Ballouti that the electricity and television will be on by four o'clock.

BENALLOU: Why four o'clock? Because there is a soccer game at 4 PM. Morocco is playing, I think, Nigeria. He's waiting to watch that.

THOMSON: Inside an electrician finishes installing a switch.

BENALLOU: We have the lights already.

THOMSON: A small fluorescent bulb flickers on and casts a pale white light.

(To Benallou) This is the first electric light ever in this house.

BENALLOU: Exactly. So this moment is historical. (Laughs)

(Hammering continues.

THOMSON: The advent of electricity in the Ballouti home is part of a sudden surge of solar power in Morocco. More than 2,000 household systems have been installed here in the last two years. And the government has recently announced plans to subsidize solar installations as part of a massive program to bring electricity to rural areas. That could mean 120,000 more solar homes in the next few years, bringing electricity to more than a million people.


THOMSON: For many Moroccans, this flurry of solar activity begins in places like this: a dusty lot in a tiny village where men in robes or wool jackets dodge cars and mule carts in a hurly-burly market called a souk.

(Voices on the radio)

THOMSON: Souk customers wind their way through stalls piled high with vegetables, clothing, household goods, and cassette tapes. And some stop at a tiny van with the SunLight Power Maroc decal on its side and a small photovoltaic array on its roof.

(Man speaks in Arabic and Berber)

THOMSON: At the back of the van there are glowing bulbs and a battery. Speaking in both Arabic and Berber, a SunLight technician explains to a group of men how the system works. He tells them that light from the sun excites electrons in the panel's silicon crystals. The electricity lights the bulbs, and some of it is stored in a battery so lights and TV can be used at night.

(Technician explains, music in the background)

THOMSON: Photovoltaic energy isn't entirely new to Morocco. Scattered businesses have sold PV systems here for years. They've long been an alluring option in a country with virtually no conventional energy resources, but an average of 300 days of sun a year. Free solar fuel. PV systems are cheap to operate, but they're expensive to manufacture. And since this is a poor country, there just haven't been many buyers. Abdelhanine Benallou of SunLight Power says there's one big stumbling block.

BENALLOU: Financing.

THOMSON: In his office in Morocco's capital, Rabat, Mr. Benallou says it's been difficult to bridge the gap between the short-term cost and the long-term savings of solar electricity.

BENALLOU: The people would like to have access to the solar energy, but you would have to solve the financing problem. If you take a solar module today, it's between $500 and $1,000, but it's something that can last for 20 years. If you factor that, you're going to see that it's going to be cheaper than using candles, cheaper than using butane gas.

THOMSON: About 80 percent of rural Moroccans regularly buy candles, butane gas or kerosene, or recharged car batteries, and they might spend $1,000 or more on these things over ten years. But they almost never have that kind of cash all at once. So Mr. Benallou’s company has adopted a new payment scheme for its solar installations. SunLight sells photovoltaic electricity based on what customers already pay every month for light and power. Essentially, they've turned the transaction from a very expensive one-time purchase into a much more affordable long-term service. Mr. Benallou says it's like signing up with your local utility. You pay for your electricity but you don't have to buy the whole power plant. He thinks this solves the problem of PV's high cost.

BENALLOU: You're going to be asking these people to pay only their electricity consumption monthly. You are not asking them to pay for the investment, and you are offering them something which is cheaper than the candle, cheaper than the kerosene, and that's it.

THOMSON: It's a seemingly simple innovation, but it doesn't eliminate the expense problem for PV systems. It merely shifts the big up-front cost from the customer to the company. So firms like SunLight Power need a lot of capital, and they need investors who aren't afraid of the uncertainties of a new market in the developing world and who aren't concerned about making a quick profit. That's a tall order, and solar companies have had trouble filling it. In fact, it's such a tough challenge that there's an international network of interests working to jump-start the market for solar power in the developing world. It includes the governments of countries like Morocco, The World Bank, American foundations, and venture capital companies that are trying to attract big piles of money with small strategic investments. It's become a grand experiment in sustainable development, and it may be starting to work.

VAN DE VEN: Okay, Jos van de Ven. I'm responsible for global rural electrification within Shell Solar.

THOMSON: That's Shell Solar as in the giant multinational oil company Royal Dutch Shell. In early February executive Jos van de Ven was working on a deal for Shell to make a big investment in a Moroccan solar company called Noorweb.

VAN DE VEN: We're thinking of taking a 40 percent share into the company. It's giving us a position in the rural electrification markets, and being a shareholder we will also be able to provide our modules that we are manufacturing in the Netherlands.

THOMSON: Mr. van de Ven says Shell now sees itself as more of an energy company than a petroleum company, and he sees a huge market for non-petroleum energy.

VAN DE VEN: There's two billion people who don't have electricity today. We want to take part of that market. We consider Morocco as one of the 14 countries that are on the top of our list to be active in.

THOMSON: Big companies like Shell, it's hoped, with deep pockets and the ability to provide lots of solar panels, will help take care of the supply side of the photovoltaic market. Small local companies like Noorweb and SunLight Power, meanwhile, are showing that there are millions of rural residents who can and will pay for photovoltaic systems. They're helping take care of the demand side. Executives of Noorweb, the company in discussions with Shell, say they see their forces lining up to develop a permanent market for solar power in Morocco, even after the government subsidies are gone.

BENOUNNA: When you create a market, sometimes the market stimulates additional demands.

THOMSON: Amin Benounna is Noorweb's technical director. He says that once rural Moroccans have met their initial needs for light and television, many will want more electricity for things like refrigeration, small appliances, and machinery.

BENOUNNA: Most of these people have no water in their houses -- not even a tap in their village. What about pumping? We think that between 10 and 45 percent of these people may need system extensions. Basically, they will need a lot of additional stuff.

THOMSON: And Mr. Benounna, a physicist by training, has learned another important economics lesson.

BENOUNNA: I'm not an economist, but I remember that the market penetration increases when you reduce the prices.

THOMSON: Amin Benounna says he hopes that the market for solar energy is on the verge of what he calls a scale change, in which increased demand will stimulate increased production, which will eventually help bring prices down. And that in turn will create still more demand in countries like Morocco and even in the U.S. So, poor rural Moroccans buying photovoltaic panels today could eventually help lead the way to more affordable solar power for Americans.


THOMSON: Back at the Ballouti house, the last copper wire for the television hookup is being twisted and tucked into place. At 4:05 PM, the TV is plugged into the home's first electric socket and clicked on.

(Sounds issue from TV)

THOMSON: The Morocco-Nigeria soccer match is underway and coming into Mr. Ballouti's living room courtesy of the sun hitting his new photovoltaic panel on the roof.

(Music over the TV)

THOMSON: Mr. Ballouti invites the installation crew to stay and watch the game with him.

BENALLOU: Yeah, he invited us to sit down. He's going to bring tea.

THOMSON: We sit around a short round table on the floor. Soon there are cups and glasses, strong dark coffee, and sweet mint tea.

(Tea pours)

THOMSON: There's little conversation. All eyes and ears are on the TV. Suddenly, a clean Nigerian kick sails over the goalie's head and into the Moroccan net.

(Shouts and cheers on the TV)

BENALLOU: Morocco is losing.

THOMSON: The group gives off a quiet sigh and continues drinking their tea.


THOMSON: After a few more minutes we step outside to say goodbye. I ask Mr. Ballouti what he thinks of his new solar system.

BALLOUTI: [Speaks in Arabic]

BENALLOU: He said for the moment, so far, so good. Very good.

THOMSON: So he's not going to send it back even though Morocco's losing.

BALLOUTI: [Laughs, speaks in Arabic]

BENALLOU: Soccer is that way. That's the ball. It goes and comes back. And this time we lose. Some other time we're going to win.

THOMSON: So the ball goes this way, the ball goes that way, but hopefully the sun stays on.

BALLOUTI: [Laughs, speaks in Arabic]

BENALLOU: He says that's from God, and it's going to stay there forever.

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson outside Sefrou, Morocco.



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