The Sun King, renewable energy

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Economics, society and environment. That’s how the Alawite King Mohammed VI has changed Morocco and become a leader in Africa.

A certain European and North American short-sightedness, combined with the laziness of the mainstream press, has so far prevented Western public opinion from noticing and understanding the historic changes that have been occurring in Morocco, just across the water from Europe, over the last 15 years. Now the protagonist of the new wave in the Maghreb is likely to become the leader of an African renaissance.

The driver of this extraordinary change is Mohammed VI, a young monarch, decisive and innovative. The King of Morocco, who in Rabat is nicknamed MVI, is held in high esteem by the population because (in spite of having inherited a land that was clearly lagging behind) he has managed to kick-start the country in the space of less than 20 years, approving significant constitutional reforms and a series of investments of huge strategic value. Take Moroccan motorways, for example. When MVI came to power, the country’s motorways covered a stretch of 80 kilometres; today the figure is in excess of 2,000. Profound changes have marked the lives of the 33 million citizens of Morocco. They have been taking place on two fronts, one cultural and the other economic, affecting the daily lives of a population that throughout the 20th century paid a high price for being halfway between East and West, between democracy and monarchy, conquerors and conquered, Europe and Africa. Since the first day of his reign, Mohammed VI has pursued a markedly innovative approach, and has not taken one step backwards. He has progressed by putting his own credibility on the line and becoming the very symbol of change.

The eighteenth sovereign of the Alaouite dynasty chose not to marry someone from the nobility. Instead, he married Lella Salma Bennani, an IT engineer from Fez. This may partly explain why Morocco is one of the most digitalized countries on the African continent. MVI then banned the tradition of polygamy and forbade the marriage of girls aged less than 18 years old. These emblematic cultural changes were combined with other changes of a more structural nature.

That Morocco did not fall for the dangerous allure of the Arab Spring was simply because the King and the government in Rabat had already set out on the path to reform by trying to compromise with the needs of the country’s citizens. So when the rest of the Maghreb exploded in revolt, Morocco failed to ignite. On the other hand, counter-terrorism measures and control of the borders have been upgraded, so much so that today Morocco is one of the safest countries in the area. Then there is the decisive change, that of the economy. On this front it is sufficient to examine just one fact: GDP has more than doubled since 2000. Morocco today has clearly moved on from the hard times of the colonial era and the many negative legacies of the 20th century. It has set to work constructing a new body and soul and, above all, a new ambitious mission: to drive the African renaissance. Morocco now has the credibility to assume economic, technological and moral leadership of an Africa that, in the opinions of most analysts, will be the fastest growing continent of this century.

Within this strategy to develop the influence of Morocco on a continental and international level, Mohammed VI has made a very clear choice, indicating the environment and innovation as the key paths to follow. And he has done so in his own way, by alternating small initiatives of great symbolic value with colossal projects. The outright ban on the use of plastic bags, the development of tram networks in Casablanca and Rabat, the launch of the first public bike sharing network and the adoption of a vast programme to adapt Moroccan agriculture to the changing climate are just some of the initiatives that MVI has introduced in order to persuade his subjects that environmental issues and renewable energy represent the eye of the needle through which the future of their country will pass.

It is precisely concerning renewable energy that Mohammed VI has been most successful, approving colossal investments and, above all, imposing an agenda of renewal and repositioning on the country. He has achieved this by taking advantage of the benefits that derive from the use of clean energy in a way that no other country in Africa has managed. Having no domestic supplies of gas or oil until a few years ago, Morocco was totally dependent on imports. That was why, in 2015, the sovereign set the key target of deriving 52% of the country’s energy needs from renewable energy (solar, wind power, thermal energy and hydroelectric) by 2030. But energy production is only one side of the coin. On the other, there is the reduction of pollution. Mohammed VI signed agreements that, alongside the productive activities, will lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 32% by 2030. And not only that, Morocco is also committed to planting 200,000 hectares of forest and boosting systems of public irrigation.

Then there are the production complexes. The most important (because it was the first and is the biggest) is the Noor solar plant that is located on the edge of the desert near the town of Ouarzazate. Once fully operational, it will produce up to 580 gigawatts. The enormous plant (set to cover an area of almost 3,000 hectares) has earned MVI the title the “Sun King”. In reality, Mohammed knows very well that renewables represent an opportunity that should be grasped with both hands. And the commercial dynamism shown by the leading international players in the sector has led to significant competition when it comes to prices.

In addition to solar, MVI has wasted no time pursing the benefits of wind power. He invited tenders for a project that was ultimately won by a consortium led by the Enel subsidiary specialized in renewables, Enel Green Power, which in recent years has been registering impressive growth in both emerging and established markets. The project is set to result in the production of 850 megawatts.

And that is just the beginning. Mohammed VI can see the political and entrepreneurial barriers ahead, but he gives the impression that he has no plans to slow down. Rather, he is accelerating to drive his whole country in this direction in such a way as not to lose the advantage that Morocco has gained over other nations. This is certainly a great opportunity for Morocco, but also for those countries and those companies that are able to take advantage of the activism and innovative spirit of this “king of the sun and the wind”. MVI’s only domestic problem is ensuring that his state apparatus, the Moroccan bureaucracy, fully understands the value of this strategy and cooperates at his desired speed in this race towards change and innovation.

As the expert on long marches, Mao Tse-tung, suggested “in the jungle the troops march at the pace of the slowest”, a risk that the king of the sun and the wind knows well because it is a problem with which he has already been confronted. It is a safe bet that MVI will use his influence to ensure that all of his country and all of Africa come to understand the value of haste, and that Bob Dylan was right when he said that the answer is “blowing in the wind”.

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