Luigi Spinola

A CREATIVE LIGHT: OUARZAZATE STORIES
Original writing for the European Investment Bank, backed by the Neighbourhood Investment Facility of the European Union


an area of Saharan desert about the size of Wales could power the whole of Europe.

  • 17 February 2018

1.      On the fringes of Noor

(Ouarzazate, Morocco). As you arrive from the west, climbing the oasis of the village of Tasselmante, the solar tower of Noor (‘light’ in Arabic) suddenly emerges above the remains of the mella, where the Jews once lived. Now the kasbah is in ruins, the Jews are gone, and among the date palms and the almond trees there is virtually nobody to be seen. Just two women squatting and chatting, nibbling barley and pulling up weeds. When I venture to speak to them, they threaten me playfully with a sickle. I manage to get a taste of some unripe almonds, but otherwise there is silence. There are no men around. “They’re away working, herding the animals or else they’re in the city. The women work here in the gardens, the duties are divided up within families”, explains Salma, guiding me through the narrow paths of the oasis.

Around 500 families live in Tasselmante, scattered throughout four small douars, clusters of shacks made with adobe, the mixture of straw and clay used in almost all buildings along the “Road of 1000 kasbahs”, as the tour promoters call the long strip that winds its way through the southern Draȃ-Tafilalet region on the edge of the Moroccan Sahara. We are at the boundary of the Noor III thermodynamic solar power plant, the most futuristic section of the massive complex intended by King Mohammed VI to turn Morocco into a solar superpower.

We are at the boundary of the Noor III thermodynamic solar power plant, the most futuristic section of the massive complex intended by King Mohammed VI to turn Morocco into a solar superpower.

“Facilities like this are usually built in the middle of nowhere”, explains Deon Du Toit, a giant Boer who came from South Africa to work at the plant. “Here we are. Welcome to the middle of nowhere”, he laughs. On the scale model at the entrance to the Noor I plant – which started operating at the beginning of 2016 – Tasselmante is but a tiny wrinkle in the sand. It seems destined to be swallowed up by what is set to become the world's biggest solar complex, with a surface area as large as that of Morocco's capital, Rabat. Until now, however, these worlds have lived side by side without ever clashing or merging.

The skyline of the village has, of course, changed since work also began on Noor III. Once the receiver is in place the tower being built, which can be seen beyond the mella, will be 247 metres high and will thus become the tallest in the whole of Africa and the brightest in the world. When at the end of this year the 7 400 flat solar panels (or heliostats), each as big as a tennis court, reflect for the first time the sun’s rays onto the top of the tower, the people here in Tasselmante will notice too. “The temperature will reach almost 600 degrees, it will be like a small sun, I can’t think of a better comparison”, remarks with a rare poetic flourish the engineer Tarik Bourquouquou of Masen, the Moroccan agency in charge of the country's solar energy plan. “The light will be ultra-white”, he continues, “you won't be able to look at it for long”.

A little reflected light is also a source of hope for Ouarzazate, the region’s only real city, about 15 km south of Noor. For some time Ouarzazate has lived off tourism and cinematographic illusions, cleverly selling itself as “The Gateway to the Sahara”. The first film crew arrived in 1939 to shoot Jericho and still today many locals make ends meet by featuring as extras. Mohammed is a tour guide but he has acted in films alongside Brad Pitt and George Clooney. “They hire me because I look like a bad guy and I fit the bill”, he says earnestly. It’s difficult to argue. Abdo, a driver, descended from slaves brought here centuries ago from the other side of the Sahara, has also done the odd job on the sets of Gladiator and Alexander.

“Ouallywood” is fertile ground for heroes of the desert, spy stories, and especially sword-and-sandal epics. Even when you’re away from the city's three studios you’re tempted to tap the walls to make sure that they’re not fake. A polystyrene piece of the set of Lawrence of Arabia even serves as an entrance to the splendid ksar of Aït Bennhadou, a key tourist attraction in the region on the road to Marrakesh. Noor too could soon become a film set, without needing any special effects to portray the future. “I heard that they’re going to shoot some scenes of Desert Storm, the next Jackie Chan film, there”, says Mohammed, who hopes to be given an opportunity. Even if it is just to peer through the gates.

Tourists too are curious. “More and more often tourists are asking to visit Noor. Perhaps we could soon add the plant to the tour of Merzouga and nearby Erg Chebbi, the only expanse of large dunes in our part of the Sahara Desert”, says Fatima, waving the brochure of the Desert Dream agency. For now though it is difficult to get in, you need a special pass and most visitors to Noor are researchers and experts. Very few locals have got past the barrier with the solar complex. “Even I’ve only ever seen it from a distance”, confirms Fatima.

In Ouarzazate and its surrounding area – its backyard – Noor thus remains a vast unknown terrain. Although it may represent an opportunity for the area, the locals are not yet quite sure how to make the most of it. The economy has picked up of course, satellite industries are developing – based around logistics first and foremost – and some people who had migrated north have come back. In Tasselmante some people even sold land to the solar plant. Thanks to a project by the NGO Agrisud, a partner of Masen, cultivation of the oasis gardens has become more profitable. And yet there is a palpable hum of dissatisfaction amongst the local population. Because they caution that Noor has already changed their lives; and because this change could shine its light far beyond the desert to the south and the sea to the north, they would like to carve out a minor role for themselves.

The economy has picked up of course, satellite industries are developing – based around logistics first and foremost – and some people who had migrated north have come back.

2.      The men of light

“Most of the people who work at the plant are foreigners”, mumbles Mahmoud. “They also come from Rabat and Casablanca.” He himself is from a small mountain village 70 km from Ouarzazate. “They said that 75% of the jobs would go to locals, but that's not how it has panned out. It’s not even 20%. All we get are the most basic manual and security jobs. There are qualified people here, in Ouarzazate we have engineering and technical schools, but they prefer to look further afield, including abroad. I’ve heard that there will even be Indians coming to work there. First the Spanish came to build Noor I and then they left. Now there are thousands of Chinese. They’re the ones building the tower”, he says, with an air of disappointment.

When I relay Mahmoud's remarks, Tarik Bourquouquou smiles and shakes his head. He’s heard this discontent before. That’s not how things are though, he says: “Today around 80% of the people working in Noor are Moroccan and half of those come from this region.” Most of the job offers are in construction because once a thermodynamic solar plant is switched on it doesn’t need many technical staff. 2 000 people worked on the Noor I site but there are only 70 employees there now that the plant is operational. On the Noor II and Noor III construction sites, which are still open, there are 6 000 employees. After lunchbreak, we see only Chinese workers in blue overalls passing silently through the entrance gate. Perhaps Jackie Chan will come and visit them.

“One fifth of the staff, about 1 200, are Chinese”, says Tarik Bourquouquou. “There are lots of them, I know, but one of the companies building the plant is Chinese. Before them, the Spanish were here for the same reason”, explains the engineer, illustrating the make-up of the multinational team that is supporting and developing the Moroccan project.

The plant’s main financiers are from Europe, led by the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the EU, via the Neighbourhood Investment Facility. The other partners are Agence Française de Développement and the German institution Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau. Together they have provided some 60% of the funds, with the remainder coming from the African Development Bank and the World Bank.

The contracts for the construction, development and operation of the plants (for 25 years, before being transferred to Masen) were won by Saudi giant ACWA Power, which was in partnership with a Spanish consortium for the first phase of Noor I. For Noor II and III, Spanish company Sener is in partnership with Sepco III, a Chinese company that Mahmoud views with suspicion.

“For the critical phases of construction we need to bring in foreign brains because the skills required are very specialised and these skills are then passed on to local employees”, explains Tarik Bourquouquou. He too has local roots, although he grew up in Casablanca and has travelled the world with Eni, the Italian hydrocarbons giant: “I’ve lived in Mexico, Africa and Canada. Three years ago I came home.” He likes to think of himself as someone who got out of the oil industry and found refuge in renewables. And he’s not the only one. “There are many people here who have come from other energy sectors, from hydrocarbons like me or from the nuclear sector”, he says. “For us it's a professional investment because going forward solar energy will overtake fossil fuels, there's no doubt about that. Getting in now is a real advantage – it means taking a pioneering role and growing as the sector grows”, says Tarik Bourquouquou climbing up to the control room from where Noor I is managed.

Below us, half a million 12-metre high satellite mirrors arranged in 800 rows move like sunflowers towards the sunset. They direct the sunlight towards transparent tubes where a diathermic oil absorbs the energy and transmits it to a heat exchanger. When it meets water, the scorching fluid produces steam, which sets the power generators in motion. Part of the heat is stored in huge tanks and will be used when there is no sunlight. The whole plant is a machine that seems to work automatically. Mind you, the people in charge of the plant need to ensure that they’re able to deal with the elements that dominate life in the Sahara: sun, sand, water and wind.

3.      Day and night

“At night when I have trouble getting to sleep because I’m thinking about work, the only thing that really worries me is that the sun won’t come up the next day”, says Deon Du Toit, laughing again. The idea is rather unrealistic. Even a lack of sunlight is a rare occurrence in the Sahara. Tarik Bourquouquou mentions that unpronounceable volcano in Iceland that blacked out Europe's skies for months in 2010 – to ward off bad luck. It’s no coincidence that Ouarzazate was chosen. “First of all, we bought direct normal irradiation (DNI) data, the key parameter for deciding where to build a thermodynamic solar plant, from satellite companies”, explains Tarik. ”Once we made our initial selection we launched small weather stations to find out more whilst at the same time assessing other cost factors. How close is the road? From where can we get water? What is the soil like? This was the perfect place. So we started to buy up land. A lot of land.”

The Sahara Desert receives around 2 500 kWh/m² of solar radiation per year, with over 3 000 hours of sunshine or 330 sunny days virtually guaranteed. We are here on one of the other 35 days. When we visit the plant, the clouds are slowly coming in. And the wind is rising. In the control room the technicians are on the alert. Noor's controllers work in tandem with the weather tower nearby, ready to oversee any changes and, if the sky darkens or there is a sandstorm, to pull out the plug.

Sand is a menace. Each and every mirror's performance is monitored. The mirrors should reflect about 99% of the sun’s radiation. If that percentage drops too much, the mirrors must be cleaned with water. A thermodynamic solar plant needs a lot of water to operate. Water is needed to produce the steam to run the power generators. It is needed to cool the turbines. And it is especially needed to make the mirrors shine. In a country like Morocco that is at risk of desertification, that can be a problem.

Sand is a menace. Each and every mirror's performance is monitored. The mirrors should reflect about 99% of the sun’s radiation. If that percentage drops too much, the mirrors must be cleaned with water.

Noor draws its water from an artificial lake about 10 km east of the plant in the middle of a spectacular lunar emptiness in the mountains. At night water is pumped to the plant whilst by day there is almost complete silence. Two fish are depicted on the metal platform suspended above the lake. There are no other signs of life except for the lanky figure of engineer Mouhssine Ait Ali, another exile. “I used to work in a dirty sector – petrochemicals”, he says.

”The lake was created in the early 1970s thanks to the construction of the Mansour Eddahbi dam on the Draȃ river”, he explains. “It serves to provide the region with drinking water and to irrigate the fields.” The sudden emergence of Noor did not cause a war, he assures me. “The plant uses less than 1% of the annual capacity of the catchment basin whilst 50% goes to agriculture. There is more water than you think in the desert”, he maintains. That may well be, but to save water the new Noor power plants will use compressed air to cool the turbines even though this will cost more. And researchers are trying to develop a ‘dry cleaning’ system.

When the sun sets, the mirrors go back to their original position. The cleaners’ truck that comes around every evening stops to clean the dirtiest ones. During the night, however, the plant continues to produce energy. That is the major advantage of thermodynamic solar power over photovoltaic systems. Concentrating Solar Power or CSP technology makes it possible to store the sun’s heat in enormous tank batteries that contain a solution of molten salts (potassium and sodium nitrate). Noor thus continues to generate electricity even at night and on dull days when the sun is hidden by clouds.

“Thermodynamic solar power resolves the key issue of storage”, Carlo Rubbia, one of the protagonists of CSP, has been repeating for years. “It works like a dam, which in hydropower plants serves to accumulate energy and regulate its release, which is not possible for photovoltaic and wind power.”

Italy’s Nobel laureate for physics introduced the molten salts variant. This odourless clear liquid looks like water. When it is “cold” the temperature of the salts is around 300 degrees. At Noor I this goes up to nearly 400 degrees. At Noor III where all the mirrors will beam the light directly onto the receiver at the top of the tower – removing diathermic oils, which cannot be heated to more than 400 degrees, from the production cycle – the temperature will go up to 585 degrees. And the hours of energy will go up to eight, thereby also illuminating the night.

Producing electricity using only sunlight 24 hours a day is already possible. “In Chile and South Africa some plants do it; there are two ways – by increasing the volume of salts or by raising the temperature”, confirms Tarik Bourquouquou. The issue of intermittency, the most vulnerable aspect of solar energy, has been resolved technically. Researchers are looking to go further though. The fluid of the future could be a cloud of liquid sand, capable of surmounting the main drawback to molten salts: if they lose heat they go solid, blocking the tubes. Technology is evolving continuously, to bring down costs among other reasons. All the rest is economic calculation, political will and geopolitical vision.

4.      The price battle

“Our success is measured by price per kilowatt-hour (kWh)”, sums up Deon Du Toit. “That is our battle.” The price is still high. At Noor II it falls to USD 0.14, but coal costs about USD 0.03, wind costs USD 0.05 and even photovoltaic energy (PV) costs less. “That’s true, but when the sun sets it stops producing energy. Therefore it has to be combined with a gas or coal-fired plant and the price goes up. Or else CSP can be coupled with PV, as we will do here with the construction of Noor IV, a photovoltaic plant.”

The comparison with coal is distorted by “doctored” prices, says the South African. “The equation is incomplete. Solar energy's detractors stress the fact that large surfaces are needed to install the mirrors. But that’s nothing compared to the devastating impact of a coal mine. That has to be factored in when discussing price.” Furthermore, solar power technology has as yet unknown development margins, continues Du Toit. “We already know everything about fossil fuels, whereas here we are in uncharted territory. You’ve only got to look at the enormous strides made at Noor III compared to Noor I.”

Market growth is accelerating the race to the bottom for prices thanks to the advantages of economies of scale. Every time that production capacity is doubled, the price is reduced by some 20% according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)'s estimates. The banks’ confidence is rising symmetrically. They are cutting risk premiums on loans, which in turn is increasing production capacity to record levels. A virtuous circle that in less than ten years could make solar power a more economical source of energy than coal.

The challenge to fossil fuels has been well and truly launched. “We are getting closer and closer”, confirms Bourquouquou. In some cases, solar power has already moved ahead. In 2016 in Chile and the United Arab Emirates the offers to produce solar power fell below USD 0.03 per kWh, less than the average global cost of coal-fired plants. In mid-May this year a call for tenders for a desert plant in Rajasthan, India saw another drop in the price of photovoltaic energy to INR 2.62 per kWh (i.e. 0.015 cents) – 40% less than the previous record. In this case too the price of solar power is lower than that of coal (INR 3.20). They are also jubilant in Noor. “The success of one plant during this phase is a step forward for us all”, explains Bourquouquou. “We are all indebted to the pioneers, the first plants in the south of Spain and in the western states of the US, and we will continue to monitor what’s happening elsewhere. Each new project takes on board the progress made by its predecessors. This is one of the few industry sectors where it is useful to also share technological innovations. Because the more facilities we have like this, the further prices will drop and the more bankers will invest in solar power”, he concludes. The turning point in India was financial not technological: the banks slashed the cost of money and put their faith in investment. The Government played a key role by offering guarantees to investors and facilitating access to land.

This kind of support was partly lacking for the Italian pioneers who hold a prominent position in the history of thermodynamic solar power: from Alessandro Battaglia, who at the end of the nineteenth century was the first person to have the idea of separating the boiler from the reflector, devising the “multiple solar collector”, to Giovanni Francia, who between 1960 and 1980 built the first prototypes with flat reflectors at Sant’Ilario in the hills above Genoa and inspired the world's first solar plant using a central tower (Eurelios), near Catania. Staying in Sicily, the Archimede thermodynamic solar plant, devised and driven by Carlo Rubbia, opened in 2010 in Priolo Gargallo in the heart of Siracusa's petrochemicals hub – and was the first to use molten salts technology within a combined-cycle plant. The latest technological innovation from Sicily came only a few months ago, with the inauguration in San Filippo del Mela by the Magaldi Group of a plant that stores heat in a fluidised sand bed.

In the field of thermodynamic solar power Italy has a history of futuristic pilot plants, albeit with reduced capacity. This is a paradox in a country that excels at producing electricity from renewable sources. Cutting-edge groups and scientists have blazed a trail which a financial, industrial and political system that is perhaps too conservative has not yet fully embraced.

In the field of thermodynamic solar power Italy has a history of futuristic pilot plants

5.      The green path

Support for solar energy forms part of the commitment made in Paris in 2015 to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The increase of renewables to 36% of the overall energy mix by 2030 would contribute half of the emission cuts needed to reach the target, according to IRENA. The remainder would be accounted for by growth in energy efficiency. The rapid transition towards a carbon-free society would also generate economic benefits, according to IRENA: doubling the share of renewables would lead to a rise in global GDP of around 1.1%. The Governments of Syria, Nicaragua and the United States have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement whilst the world’s other 194 countries are pressing ahead.

Morocco has adopted a green path strategy in recent years, driven by the need to cut soaring costs. The country sources 94% of its requirements abroad and domestic demand doubles every 10 years. To meet that demand, following the inauguration in Ouarzazate Noor is planned to expand, opening new multi-technological complexes (CSP + PV) in Midelt, Tata, Laayoune and Boujdor. With a capacity of 160 MW, Noor I currently supplies the electricity required for the daily consumption of some 600 000 people. By 2020 Morocco’s solar power industry is expected to produce 2 GW, of which 580 MW will come from Ouarzazate's four plants. Apart from solar energy, Morocco is investing in hydroelectric and wind power: one of Africa’s biggest wind farms is located in Tarfaya, also at the edge of the Sahara, and another five sites are under construction.

If everything goes according to plan, Morocco's energy mix will change radically: by 2030 over half (52%) of the energy consumed should come from renewables: water, sun and wind in equal parts. And Rabat has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 32% by that year. Liberation from foreign suppliers goes hand in hand with the aim of gaining credit as a model of environmental sustainability, as set out during COP22, the global climate change conference held in Marrakesh in 2016. The solar plan alone will help to reduce annual CO2 emissions by 3.7 million tonnes. That is not enough, however.

If everything goes according to plan, Morocco's energy mix will change radically: by 2030 over half (52%) of the energy consumed should come from renewables: water, sun and wind in equal parts.

Morocco's ‘green path’ encompasses everything from a ban on plastic bags and the creation of 200 000 hectares of forest to the ‘sustainable mosques’ project, which initially aims to make 600 places of worship energy efficient by 2019 (by equipping them with LED lamps, photovoltaic systems and solar panels). After almost nine centuries of existence, the Koutoubia mosque – the oldest and most beautiful mosque in Marrakesh – has already been adapted.

Aside from the energy objectives and collateral advantages associated with the green economy, the programme aims to spur a minor cultural revolution. To spread the word of environmental sustainability, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has involved the country’s imams and mourchidates, the women clergy established following the Casablanca attacks in 2003 when Rabat launched a reform of Islam in the country to combat the rise of extremism. In the best of all worlds imaginable, although perhaps it is a pipe dream, the green path strategy would help bring peace and stability to Morocco. And its impact could spread far beyond the country's borders.

6.      Geopolitics of the sun

When you ask the Noor people where all the solar energy produced will end up, they tense up a little. “It’s for Morocco, we have a domestic strategy to meet the country’s needs”, replies Tariq Bourquouquou before adding: “In the event of overproduction and requests from abroad, the electricity can also be exported – to Europe or to other places. These are decisions that will come from the top, however. We supply energy to the distributor. Strategic choices are not our responsibility. You’ll have to ask higher up, in Rabat”, he suggests.

The rest of the world has been interested in the sun's rays beaming down on North Africa for some time now. More than a century ago (in the summer of 1913) the brilliant American inventor Frank Shuman switched on the first ever thermodynamic solar power plant on the banks of the Nile, about 15 km south of Cairo. Before an astonished gathering of the British colonial élite, his system of parabolic reflectors powered the pumps used to irrigate the cotton fields adjacent to the vast African river.

Replacing the coal that came at great expense from Britain’s far-off mines with local sunshine seemed reasonable more than visionary. Shuman already had his sights set higher though, on the Sahara and the possibility of generating electricity for all, convinced that “the human race must finally utilise direct sun power or revert to barbarism”. Not long after that, the outbreak of the barbaric World War I interrupted his project. But with time, the lethal combination of repeated oil crises, alarm about global warming and nuclear accidents revived the idea of the Sahara sun as an attractive alternative source of energy.

In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, German physicist Gerhard Knies calculated that the world's deserts collect more energy from the sun in six hours than mankind consumes in an entire year. There is enough sunlight for everyone, reasoned Knies, and it is hard to imagine a war caused by the sun similar to the conflicts driven by oil. Adding that to the other advantages of solar energy, under the radioactive clouds that were coming in from the USSR, Knies wondered, like Shuman before him, whether “we are really, as a species, so stupid not to make better use of this resource”.

The German physicist carried on his work without waiting for a reply. Some 20 years later, Knies's efforts culminated in the birth of the Desertec Foundation, which aimed to build a network of solar and wind farms across the Sahara, connected to Europe via state-of-the-art transmission cables.

According to Knies's initial estimates, an area of Saharan desert about the size of Wales could power the whole of Europe. More modestly, the project aimed to meet 15% of Europe's demand by 2050, once the needs of the energy-producing countries were covered. The vision became more realistic with the creation of the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), an international consortium driven by Germany (the first shareholders included E.ON, Munich Re, Siemens and Deutsche Bank). A few years later, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster which accelerated Germany's phasing out of nuclear power, Desertec announced that it had given the green light to the first phase of the project: the construction of a solar plant near Ouarzazate in the Moroccan Sahara.

an area of Saharan desert about the size of Wales could power the whole of Europe.

This was the embryo of the Noor project and of a plan that was expected to expand first to Tunisia and Algeria and then to Egypt, Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Desertec had found a French project partner Medgrid, which aimed to create a Euro-Mediterranean electricity transmission network by laying very high-voltage cables between the two shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The political and strategic engine behind the initiative was the Mediterranean Solar Plan (MSP), launched by the then recently formed Union for the Mediterranean. The goals set by the MSP in 2008 were ambitious: via an estimated total investment of some EUR 80bn to develop capacity of 20 GW by 2020, three quarters of which was designed to cover local needs whilst the remainder would be exported to Europe.

Since then Noor has grown by itself as part of Morocco's national strategy. Desertec, on the other hand, has since folded, a victim of the new period of instability that hit some of its partners on the southern shore following the optimism of the Arab Spring. At a time when new barriers are going up, the broader project of Euro-Mediterranean integration has also come to a standstill. Rabat is still interested in it though.

“Morocco's integration into the regional and Euro-Mediterranean energy system is a key part of our strategy”, explains Masen's spokeswoman Maha El Kadiri. “That’s why we had the conviction to embrace both the MSP and Desertec. Now Desertec is gone and our national plan has, in some ways, overtaken it but the goal remains the same. Given our location, we are destined to play a front-line role in the area of power exchanges within the Euro-Mediterranean region.”

Morocco's integration into the regional and Euro-Mediterranean energy system is a key part of our strategy

  • explains Masen's spokeswoman Maha El Kadiri.

The infrastructure is still frail, however. At present, only a 1.4 GW two-way alternating current connects the two continents across the Strait of Gibraltar. But the network is expanding. “Our strategy is moving on two fronts: towards Europe and towards Africa. The entire North Africa-West Africa hub will be connected to the Old Continent”, according to Rabat. An interconnection with Portugal is already under construction whilst the link with Spain will be bolstered. From there the energy should travel across the whole of Europe if Brussels’ electricity interconnection target of 10% by 2020 is achieved. On the southern shore, the Maghreb is already an integrated region: Morocco is linked to Algeria, which in turn is connected to Tunisia. And the planned interconnection with Mauritania opens the door to West Africa for energy produced in the Sahara. And maybe even beyond.

“There is a solar revolution in Africa”, Deon Du Toit says proudly. “Right now Morocco is leading the way and in South Africa we are also contributing but in the middle there is a continent that is still partly in the dark. The light from Noor should also reach these areas.” Energy integration could also serve to fully rehabilitate Rabat politically on the continent following its recent return to the African Union, which it left 33 years ago (when it was called the Organisation of African Unity) because of a dispute regarding the status of Western Sahara.

On the northern shore of the Mediterranean, the rationale behind the solar plan has remained intact on paper. Apart from diversifying the energy mix, thereby reducing the dependency on certain suppliers, the cables directed towards Africa could move Europe closer to achieving the goals set to contain global warming, increasing the proportion of energy consumed that comes from renewable sources. Is this plan still relevant?

The flow of investment coming from Europe is a good sign. For the EU and its financing arm the EIB, a project like Noor is at the crossroads between partnership policies in support of neighbouring countries and the rising focus on the green economy in general and renewables in particular (the EIB is the biggest multilateral lender in the field of climate finance). There may be something else on the horizon, however: an energy community that could quite simply be the embryo of a Euro-Mediterranean community.

Following a long period of paralysis, national governments have recently begun to act. At the end of 2016, Morocco, Germany, Spain, France and Portugal signed an agreement on the exchange of electricity from renewable sources. “Now we have a road map for regional integration with Europe. There’s fresh impetus”, according to Rabat. In January 2017 the Union for the Mediterranean also made its reappearance at a summit held in Barcelona. Very little remains of the overambitious political engineering project launched almost ten years ago by Nicolas Sarkozy. But people are beginning to speak again about a space to be managed together. The discussion is not a straightforward one.

The wariness of the Europeans, barricaded in their fortress, is coupled with that of the Arabs, who are suspicious that certain partners on the other side of the Mediterranean may still have antiquated plans to exploit African resources. From that perspective, the Arab Spring was not in vain. If a community develops, it will not be able to revolve around the needs and concerns of Europe alone.

Today represents more of an opportunity than a plan, even if that is difficult to see right now. What's needed is that pragmatic approach that was adopted to build, brick by brick, a shared home on the Old Continent. Europe initiated that process more than sixty years ago by pooling its coal and steel resources in order to materially prevent further outbreaks of war between its countries. The sunlight beaming down on the Sahara could launch a different narrative to open up a Mediterranean region that is closed right now.