IN DEPTH: Noor 1 project heralds second coming of CSP

Last month’s successful switch-on of the 160MW Noor 1 concentrating solar power (CSP) plant in Morocco is proof that the out-of-favour technology can be cost-effective in countries with high solar irradiation.

“The Noor 1 project has led the way in showing that costs have come down significantly from the first phase of global deployment of CSP and has helped raise awareness of the economic possibilities of the technology,” Michael Taylor, renewables analyst at the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), tells Recharge.

The 45sq km parabolic-trough plant, which was inaugurated by King Mohammed VI on 4 February, is the first of three phases planned at the 580MW Noor-Ouarzazate complex on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

The second phase, to be completed in 2017-18, will consist of the 200MW Noor 2 parabolic-trough array and the 150MW Noor 3 power-tower project. Noor 1 has been built with three hours of molten-salt storage, while Noor 2 and 3 will each be built with seven hours of back-up. 

The Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen), which is in charge of project planning, has decided phase three — Noor 4 — will be a 50MW PV plant. This decision was not taken because PV is cheaper, but because the remaining land will be better suited to that technology, the agency tells Recharge.

“Today, PV projects are able to supply electricity in the range of $0.06-0.28 per kWh, compared to CSP costs, which are in the range $0.14-0.30/kWh,” says Taylor.

CSP can unlock greater value than PV as it can be timed to coincide with periods of peak demand and higher prices,” he adds, pointing out that this price comparison does not take into account the length of time electricity is generated in any one day.

“However, CSP relies on high levels of direct solar irradiation to make it economic. So for some countries with good diffuse solar resources but poor direct irradiation — for example due to high humidity levels in the air — then solar PV will be a more economic option.

“The cost structure for CSP isn’t that bad, so we see a pretty bright future for the technology if the current minimum levels of policy support can be sustained.

“At the moment [the situation for CSP is] not ideal, as you don’t really have a large enough project pipeline to encourage the kind of supply-chain development and competition that could rapidly drive down costs. So there needs to be more deployment across the board to accelerate these cost reductions.”

He adds that it is “hugely significant” that Noor 1 has gone “remarkably smoothly” during the development and start-up phases. “I think a lot of people in the industry have been watching to see how this Moroccan project has been successfully rolled out.

“This is proving such projects can be ramped up in countries which haven’t had a lot of previous experience with this technology.”

The European Solar Thermal Association (Estela) believes CSP will reach 10GW of installed capacity within the next five years, from almost 5GW today and 500MW in 2006.

Irena estimates 1.3GW of CSP projects are under construction worldwide (plus another 1GW being built in Oman to produce steam for enhanced oil recovery). Longer-term, it sees an additional 6.5-12GW of projects in the pipeline.

Institutions such as the World Bank, European Investment Bank and African Development Bank have got behind the technology by investing heavily in Noor-Ouarzazate.

“The returns on this investment will be significant for the country and its people, by enhancing energy security, creating a cleaner environment, and encouraging new industries and job creation,” says Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly, World Bank country director for the Maghreb and Malta.

Noor-Ouarzazate is critical to Morocco’s ambitious plan to install 2GW of renewables — 42% of its energy — by 2020. The nation is currently almost totally dependent on imported fossil fuels for its electricity generation.

“Morocco is proving with this project that it is much more advanced in its strategic thinking on such schemes when compared to Europe,” Marcel Bial, general secretary of Estela, tells Recharge.

In the short term, Morocco intends to use solar power to meet its own domestic needs. However, Masen says exporting renewable power to Tunisia and Europe remains high on the agenda, despite the collapse of the much-publicised Desertec project.

Taylor says CSP will still need government support to ensure that projects can go forward.

“We would like to see the market for CSP become broader and deeper. I think we have every chance to see that happen, but it’s still a very risky period for the technology.

“What happens in China over the next few years is going to be critically important. The Chinese so far only have a few small projects, but are really studying CSP a lot.

“However, compared to the much larger market for solar PV, the CSP sector is still relatively narrow, with the top five countries involved [Spain, the US, Chile, South Africa and Morocco] still having too high a share of the global market for us to be entirely comfortable.”