While these foreign guests can imagine a low-carbon future as they walk around the gleaming high-tech equipment, most local residents have never actually seen the installation. It is invisible, hidden behind a rocky plateau and a fenced perimeter and guarded as a securitized military zone.
Over the last decade, Morocco has capitalized on its strategic advantage in solar power—the arid regions bordering the Sahara get a lot of sun—to become a regional and global leader in renewable energy. In 2009, the government announced a National Energy Strategy to move from near complete reliance on imported energy to producing 42 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020, subsequently upped to 52 percent by 2030. By 2020, Morocco was on track to surpass the 40 percent mark, due in large part to massive investments in solar energy capacity. The central government created the legal, financial and political infrastructure for these megaprojects with extraordinary speed, in the process remaking rural landscapes and cementing Morocco’s geopolitical stature vis à vis Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and global renewable energy markets. But the country’s renewable energy plan is more than geopolitical positioning and a forward-thinking move to a low-carbon economy. It also forms part of the state’s efforts to territorialize its presence in rural hinterlands that currently represent a significant political concern for the regime.
Political rumblings in the country’s rural periphery threaten the veneer of stability that the Moroccan regime has touted in its efforts to de-risk international investment in its renewable sector and otherwise attract foreign investment, aid and tourism to the country, especially after the regional uprisings of 2011. The regions surrounding the Noor installation in Ouarzazate and the 1,600 megawatt solar plant under development in Midelt province, about 280 miles to the northeast of Noor, have both seen rural unrest and other demonstrations of discontent in recent years. Political claims center on long-standing repression, economic marginalization and the central government’s lack of investment in services or infrastructure.
The tension between the regime’s techno-optimism and residents’ social mobilizations illustrates how structures of authoritarianism can facilitate the rapid expansion of renewable energy while also reinforcing existing social and economic inequalities—challenging assumptions that a low-carbon energy transition is inherently progressive. Renewable energy megaprojects can buttress exclusionary political regimes and the same economic systems and practices that produced the climate crisis in the first place. In Morocco, renewable energy also feeds rural political opposition and claims for equity, transparency and political participation.
Renewable Energy as a Megaproject
The gigantism of the solar plan places the initiative among other megaprojects that have become the hallmark of King Mohammed VI’s rule: a high-speed rail line, the Tanger Med port complex and Bouregreg development zone, among others. These projects further integrate the country into increasingly financialized circuits of capital and global trade networks, exacerbating already high levels of inequality while benefiting elite circles tied to the palace. As the scholar Koenraad Bogaert argues, megaprojects are political projects as much as economic ones. Tamping down the social unrest they provoke maintains the country’s attractiveness to investors and polices the limits of political discourse acceptable to the regime. There are additional imperatives that explain the ambitious plans and resources devoted to renewable energy: mounting alarm about dependence on imported hydrocarbons as the country’s energy demand continues to climb and regional geopolitical calculations. The Moroccan government is using its aggressive approach to renewable energy financing and implementation to secure its position as a key energy partner with the European Union and as a broker to sub-Saharan African countries looking for support in their energy programs.
The Noor solar installation is the cornerstone of Morocco’s solar energy strategy. Located in the commune of Ghessate, 6 miles outside the southeastern provincial capital of Ouarzazate, the complex includes both concentrated solar power and photovoltaic technology. It was constructed in four phases: Noor I went live in February 2016, with Noor II, III and IV commissioning at various points in 2018 for a total capacity of nearly 600 megawatts. The sheer scale of the installation underscores how the state envisions the solar plan as a support to national economic growth as well as political consolidation.
As in other megaprojects showcased by the regime, the choice of technology and approach to implementation underscore how political and economic aims reinforce one another. Decentralized, smaller scale generation systems relying on photovoltaics allow for more local autonomy from the grid, technically and economically. Large utility scale projects facilitate centralized control of electricity transmission and energy markets. In the context of nearly two decades of decentralization reforms in Morocco aimed at regionalizing governance and fiscal policy, the emphasis on centralized authority over renewable energy highlights the strategic importance of the sector. The King has taken a direct, personal interest in the progress of the National Energy Strategy. In 2015, when he asked the key institutional and political actors to explain why they were not coordinating better, they responded by making the plan even more ambitious. The goal of producing 42 percent of the country’s energy from renewables by 2020 was raised to 52 percent by 2030. The parastatal Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy was also restructured to hold exclusive authority over the entire renewable energy plan and became the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy (MASEN). MASEN has coordinated with multiple ministries, parastatal organizations, international finance institutions and private investors to lay the groundwork for a national network of utility scale solar installations and wind parks, strategically located in areas of strong solar and wind potential that also have strong political import. A number of plants, for instance, are slated to be built in the disputed Saharan Provinces or Western Sahara, subject to longstanding claims of sovereignty and independence by the Polisario Front and many residents of the zone since 1975.
Piercing Narratives of Techno-Optimism
Morocco’s public commitments to reducing global carbon emissions draw on narratives of progress that contrast images of clean, immaterial solar power with the dirtiness of fossil fuels. These uplifting narratives are intended to counter criticism of the National Energy Strategy, its national economic or geopolitical implications and its impact for affected residents. European and Moroccan activists question the political economy of Moroccan energy markets, noting how the partial liberalization of the energy sector in the 1990s has allowed the state to subsidize profits for private sector actors. They also note how the ambitious renewable targets obscure continued reliance on coal and natural gas for much of the country’s power generation, among other vulnerabilities in Morocco’s electricity market. The state subsidizes electricity produced by the private contractors operating the solar installation in Ouarzazate through a guaranteed price per kilowatt hour. In order to attract private sector partners to the national energy market, the state shields the private companies feeding electricity into the grid from competition with the artificially low prices for the fossil fuels used in conventional energy generation. Though critics initially decried plans to build Morocco’s renewable capacity so that it can export electricity to Europe, this has not come to pass—the country continues to import over 17 percent of its electricity from Spain through high transmission lines that allow Spain to unload its excess capacity at substantial cost to Morocco.
Many residents and civil society activists in the southeast also dispute the positive benefits of the installation. Their concerns reflect the common sentiment that the solar plan is not negative in and of itself but is compromised by the government’s lack of commitment to democratic practice and meaningful redistributive policies. Ouarzazate and the other southeastern provinces have been politically and economically marginalized ever since the French Protectorate’s final military campaign against holdout Amazigh tribal confederations in 1934. The long-standing lack of investment in infrastructure, state services and local livelihoods such as livestock production or oasis agriculture serve as the backdrop for contemporary social mobilizations that question the extractive nature of state and corporate interventions in the region.
Initial popular mobilizations beginning in 2010 focused on the opaque processes for selecting the site and transferring the land to the newly created Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN). The arid steppe-land historically served as grazing land for transhumant pastoralism—the seasonal movement of herds from the High Atlas Mountains to the lower altitude steppe and a land use historically devalued by colonial authorities (Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912–1956) and the post-independence monarchy. Local residents or elected officials were not consulted or given a role in the choice of the 3,000 hectare site for the project, nor were they informed beforehand about the sale of their collectively owned land to MASEN. Authority over the legal disposition of this land rests exclusively with collective land representatives, positions formalized during the colonial period to facilitate state control over communal territory. These representatives are easily pressured by state authorities or powerful notables and have had no other governing role in the solar project other than signing off on the sale. Local Interior Ministry officials admonished residents that as a high-profile “structuring project” favored by the King, the solar installation would be built where and when the government decided.
The collective land representative for the Ait Oukrour tribal confederation recently admitted the plot was sold for what he termed a “symbolic dirham.” Though the actual sale price was 30 million dirham (approximately $3 million), residents, land rights activists and even some officials of the regional Directorate of Rural Affairs—which holds authority over collective lands—agree that the amount was paltry, a symbolic payment rather than meaningful compensation for the land’s value. Attentiveness to international finance institutions’ requirements for environmental and social impact assessments meant that the state followed the letter of the laws governing the sale of collectively owned land. These laws date to the early colonial period and declared collectively owned land to be ostensibly inalienable. But they were designed to facilitate colonial expropriation and are at the heart of many land conflicts today in the country.
Abdelouahid Chafii, an activist originally from Ghessate and a representative on the regional Council for Equity and Equality of Opportunity (regional councils mandated by the revised 2011 national constitution) noted, “The sun is an inexhaustible resource, but you need land to capture it. How can we harness the sun without giving up our claims on the land that our ancestors have held for centuries?” Chafii and other residents who have voiced dissent are less invested in the particular plot of land purchased by MASEN than a broader discussion of how the state has facilitated megaprojects and other forms of extraction without a concerted plan for investing in the region. They explain that state and corporate responses fall far short of the region’s needs.
Early protests at the land sale for the Noor installation and lack of official communication with local residents resulted in a corporate social responsibility plan that launched a series of community development projects in partnership with the state. Projects included agricultural technical assistance to oasis farmers, infrastructural development such as the provision of potable water and the construction of a dormitory to facilitate girls’ attendance at the middle and high schools located in the commune’s main town. But these projects were funded by the proceeds of the land sale that went into government coffers rather than to the collective rights holders directly, leaving residents asking why they have to pay for their own “development.” Following the 1919 collective land law, revenues from the sale or lease of collective land are deposited in accounts kept by the Ministry of Interior (formerly the Bureau d’Affaires Indigènes); tribal confederations cannot gain access to these funds or even find out how much is due to them.
Local perspectives vary on these projects. Few residents we spoke to take issue with the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) tasked with implementing the projects. Their discontent with the solar installation instead feeds into long-term disillusionment with the state and political system, which is given voice in the vibrant local media but largely ignored by celebratory national and international press coverage of the solar plant. International media accounts frequently repeat the official narrative that the solar installation drives regional development by citing the number of local development projects and their beneficiaries. Residents’ claims, however, extend beyond these limited interventions to the lack of employment opportunities in the plant and the general lack of investment in this marginalized region. The highly technical nature and low labor requirements of the completed plant mean there were never going to be real possibilities for distributing benefits through Noor’s operations, a fact lost in the official narratives about the project’s transformative potential.
In 2017, eight activists were jailed for participating in a series of demonstrations demanding jobs and held a nine-day hunger strike in opposition to limited job opportunities and the abdication by local officials of their role as representatives of the population. Instead, activists assert that they act as agents of corporate contractors and state agencies to ensure that the project proceeds smoothly, even if it is at the expense of local residents. Chafii, the activist serving on the regional council for equity, comments that most people would say nothing has changed for the better for residents. To the contrary, he says, as expectations for employment in the plant have not materialized, outmigration in search of jobs has only increased. According to Chafii, residents feel the project and the accompanying narratives of progress were a “complete deception.” Chafii, who was among the activists jailed, recounts how upon their release, officials arranged for a handful of Ghessate residents to receive posts at the plant but he notes that they were a small number of short-term and low-paying menial jobs such as washing mirrors in the hot desert sun—hardly a motor of regional development or a means of increasing the educational and economic prospects for residents.
Activists suggest other scenarios whereby the tribal confederation could have leased the land or otherwise benefited from the revenues now flowing to the private contractors responsible for building and operating the plant—multinational corporations based in Saudi Arabia, China and Spain. Chafii notes that few residents, however, frame their claims as sovereignty over the land necessary for capturing the solar power. Activists interviewed for this article attribute the narrowness of the demands to a lack of political confidence on the part of marginalized rural residents with little exposure to the language of social mobilization; they also point to the power of self-censorship as residents avoid posing direct challenges to the King or his priorities. But the nature of popular claims also speaks to the way the project and officials from central government ministries, the province and the local commune have foreclosed alternatives for implementing the project or distributing the wealth it produces. Discussion is restricted to how particular community development projects are implemented rather than about the overall management of the installation, how residents could gain control over their own proceeds from the land sale or a frank dialogue about how this project might address the region’s structural marginalization from the national economy.
More of the Same?
Meanwhile, popular demands for meaningful employment continue ten years after Noor I was announced. Optimism about participatory mechanisms instituted after the first protests in 2010 soured after “endless meetings produced no results,” in the words of Mohamed Ouadal, another activist from Ghessate. Rather than serving as mediators, local officials became gatekeepers in a vertical relation that involves simply relaying popular claims to corporate and state authorities. The governor from 2015–2018 refused to meet with activists and residents, while the current governor’s promise to secure two dozen new positions for residents went unfulfilled for months until the novel coronavirus pandemic put the entire economy on hold. Ouadal describes the current impasse as the fault of government authorities rather than the project itself, reflecting broad support for the idea of renewable energy even as the government’s approach comes under harsh critique.
The nuances of the activists’ political demands are invisible in policy documents and breathless international coverage of the plant. Mainstream scholarly and policy assessments of how and why a given population receives renewable energy tend to describe an abstracted public as either accepting or rejecting renewable projects. The methods for these assessments often use analytic frameworks drawn from wealthier countries where a primary issue is NIMBYism (as opposed to established activism around environmental racism that has long placed extractive and other environmentally polluting projects in communities of color). In wealthier countries, residents express resistance to the unsightliness of wind or solar projects, a minor issue for the marginalized rural populations such as those in southeast Morocco who have long experienced state interventions that extract wealth for the benefit of others.
This pattern is evident in mainstream assessments of public support for the Noor installation in Ouarzazate. Surveys and even studies using notably participatory methods narrowly assess residents’ opinions of the solar plant without considering the larger political and economic context for increasing discontent. Although activists report widespread support for a renewable energy transition, they rue the further entrenchment of distrust of state officials and projects that deepen the region’s marginalization. Ouadal, for example, describes how the contracting process for support services for the plant, as well as some community development projects, were simply folded into existing networks of corruption and clientelism, citing a local notable who was able to establish a rock quarry on the installation site without going through the formal permitting procedure. Meanwhile, Ouadal notes, residents are disillusioned by broken promises of uplifting the region and see the social fabric of Ghessate unraveling because of conflicts over the distribution of project benefits and politicized self-dealing.
Resident and activist concerns about how assessments misrepresent the impacts and political dynamics surrounding the Noor project extend to the ongoing environmental implications of the installation, especially for water use in this arid region. Though initial assessments estimated an annual water requirement of 3 million cubic meters, primarily for steam generation and washing mirrors, which would be drawn from Ouarzazate’s Mansour ad-Dhabi dam, officials publicly asserted that this water was returning to the watershed, clean and reusable—a claim that residents dispute. It is, however, impossible to get official statistics on actual water use now that the fourth phase of the installation is operational. The dam is managed by the Regional Agricultural Office in Ouarzazate, but one official there anonymously admitted that the Noor complex does not report its water draws even to them and that regional water planning has unraveled because the single largest user of dam water besides the city of Ouarzazate remains opaque about its usage.
The issue, then, is not simply how the plant affects water quality or availability in the area immediately surrounding the plant, but rather the ecological impacts and planning challenges posed by such high water use in one of the country’s most arid regions. Although one of the corporate social responsibility projects has provided pumping capacity to some villages around the plant experiencing prolonged water shortages, this only exacerbates the stress on the region’s falling water tables. The irony that a project intended to mitigate climate change is only worsening the effects of climate change in one of Morocco’s poorest and most water-stressed regions is not lost on residents.
The Moroccan government has claimed a leadership role in the global energy transition, with the Noor installation as the public face of this progressive new image. Given such lofty aspirations, residents anticipated more than just another megaproject that further drives a wedge between residents and state authorities while extracting wealth for the benefit of outsiders. “We don’t even know where the electricity goes,” said Ouadal, who explained that they continue to struggle to pay the same utility rates as before. “And no, we don’t get free electricity,” he added. This story is not unique to Morocco. Environmental scholars and activists around the world describe many large-scale renewable energy projects that repeat the same exclusions and inequalities, waste and toxic materials disposal problems and other environmental injustices found in conventional extraction industries. For these critics, as for the residents of southeastern Morocco, the question is not whether renewable energy in Morocco or anywhere else is good or bad but how to design an energy transition that also prioritizes equity and a fundamental rethinking of the economic and political models that gave rise to the climate crisis to begin with.
[Moulay Ahmed el Amrani, originally from Tinghir province, Morocco, works as an educator and is deeply involved in civic engagement, human development projects and human rights activism. Atman Aoui is the principal of a school in Tinghir province and the president of the Moroccan Association for the Promotion of Mediation, among other activism in civic engagement, human rights and community development. Karen Rignall is assistant professor in the Department of Community and Leadership Development at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. ]
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 Digital interview, Abdelouahid Chafii, August 8, 2020.
 Digital interview, Mohamed Ouadal, June 5, 2020.
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 Personal conversation, June 1, 2020.