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

Morocco Sun

Air Date: Week of

Peter Thomson reports from Morocco on a surge in solar power. An innovative financing model is bringing together corporations, entrepreneurs, and Moroccan residents to supply affordable power in rural areas.


ROSS: Night light pollution isn't much of a problem for the two billion or so people on the planet who don't have access to reliable sources of electricity. Bringing power to these people is a major environmental and economic challenge. But in many places, photo-voltaic cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity may be a solution. One place where the sun is bright and bountiful is the North African desert nation of Morocco, host of the latest round of talks on climate change. From the Living On Earth archives, Peter Thomson has this report on the complex economics of bringing solar power to the developing world.


THOMSON: It's early evening in the Place Djemaa el Fna, the marketplace in 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 a 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.


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


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 sun, a man hammers braces into the beams of a thatched roof. The braces hold a cable that runs from the darkened doorway up onto the roof, where it connects to a small blue and silver photo-voltaic array.

BENALLOU: We will have electricity from the array today.

THOMSON: Abdelhanine Benallou is the President of SunLight Power Maroc. His crew is installing a 50-watt solar system at the home of Abdallah Baloutti. 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. Banallou says that in remote areas like this, even wealthier residents aren't hooked up to the power grid.

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

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


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 dollars, then a monthly fee of 20 dollars. The SunLight Power crew has promised Mr. Baloutti that the electricity and television will be on by four o'clock.

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

THOMSON: Inside, an electrician finishes installing a switch. A small fluorescent bulb flickers on and casts a pale white light. This is the first electric light ever in this house.

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

THOMSON: The advent of electricity in the Baloutti home is part of a sudden surge of solar power in Morocco.


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. 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 a SunLight Power Maroc decal on its side and a small photo-voltaic array on its roof.


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 small group of men how the system works. He tells them that light from the sun excites electrons in the panel's silicon crystals, and electricity lights the bulbs, and some of it is stored in a battery, so lights and a TV can be used at night.


THOMSON: Photo-voltaic 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: 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 dollars and 1,000 dollars, 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 recharge car batteries, and they might spend 1,000 dollars or more on these things over 10 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 photo-voltaic 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 are going to be asking these people to pay only their electricity consumption monthly. You're 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 Van. I'm responsible for global rural electricification within Shell Solar.

THOMSON: That's Shell Solar, as in the giant multi-national oil company, Royal Dutch Shell. 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 that market. We consider Morocco 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 photo-voltaic 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 photo-voltaic systems. They're helping take care of the demand side. Executives of Noorweb, the company in discussions with Shell, say they see the forces lining up to develop a permanent market for solar power in Morocco, even after the government subsidies are gone.

AMIN 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 ten 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 photo-voltaic panels today could eventually help lead the way to more affordable solar power for Americans.


THOMSON: Back at the Baloutti house, the last copper wire for the television hook-up is being twisted and tucked into place. At 4:05 p.m. the TV is plugged into the home's first electric socket and clicked on. The Morocco-Nigeria soccer match is underway, and coming into Mr. Baloutti's living room, courtesy of the sun hitting his new photo-voltaic panel on the roof. Mr. Baloutti invites the installation crew to stay and watch the game with him. We sit around a short, round table on the floor. Soon there are cups and glasses of strong, dark coffee and sweet mint tea. There's little conversation. All eyes and ears are on the TV. Suddenly, a clean Nigerian kick sails over the goalee's head into the Moroccan net. The group gives off a quiet sigh and continues drinking their tea. After a few more minutes we step outside to say good-bye. I ask Mr. Baloutti what he thinks of his new solar system.


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? (Laughter.)


BENALLOU: Soccer is that way. That's the ball. Goes, comes back, and--

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


BENALLOU: He's saying "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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