Morocco imports 95% of its energy. Its fortunes dependent on oil-price fluctuations, the country's trade deficit has been expanding.

Renewable energy was an obvious solution for a country that has more than 2,000 miles of windy coasts along the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea and more than 3,000 hours of sunshine annually; it also has access to the biggest sand desert on the planet.

With energy plants under construction that will generate solar, wind and hydro power on a scale never before seen in Africa, Morocco is turning very green. By 2020, the country plans to generate over 40% of its energy from renewables. Already, construction is under way at the northern edge of the Sahara on a solar plant that will eclipse by 60 MW the world’s current largest solar facility—a 100-MW concentrated solar power (CSP) plant opened in March in Abu Dhabi.

Morocco launched a concerted fund-raising and development effort in 2009 to boost capacity in all three renewables, and the projects are now starting construction.

The first phase of Morocco’s expansive solar power program is the 160-MW, $660-million CSP plant at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains near the southern city of Ourzazate. The plant will use a parabolic trough, a three-hour thermal storage system and wet-cooling technology. Last year, MASEN started construction on the main roads, an 8-million-gallon water reservoir and connections to a dam 2.5 miles away from the site. Meanwhile, Morocco’s utility company, ONEE, is building electric, 500-MW-capacity substations and laying high-voltage lines. Led by Saudi Arabia’s Acwa Power, which won the bid last summer, construction will start on the plant itself at the end of May.

The EPC contract for constructing and putting the plant on line went to an all-Spanish consortium of Acciona, SENER and TSK. The plant is scheduled to start operations in 28 months. While the consortium has extensive experience building solar plants both in Spain and Africa—the same consortium is building a solar plant near the Kalahari Desert in South Africa—Morocco presents its own challenges.

“Executing such an important project in a developing country in an area with great development potential such as Ouarzazte … is a challenge that requires leveraging the know-how of the companies involved and the existing capacity in Morocco,” said Hector Salvador Molina, ACCIONA project director for the Ouarzazate EPC.

MASEN is in the prequalification rounds for another two plants at Ourzazate: a 200-MW CSP plant and a 100-MW plant that will use central receiver technology. At year's end, it will start to bid out a 50-MW photovoltaic plant. Overall, the 500-MW Ourzazate solar-plant complex, when completed in 2019, will spread across 7,413 acres and account for 18% of Morocco’s domestic energy generation. Then, there are the plants going on line in 2020.

Four other sites across the country have been selected for development based on optimum days of sunshine, proximity to the national grid, availability of infrastructure, including roads and water access, according to Nabil Saimi, director of international cooperation at MASEN.

“Part of our mission is to have a socio-economic impact,” Saimi said. The first phase of the Ourzazate project already has up to 400 workers on-site; at its peak, up to 4,000 people will be employed just for construction, and part of the qualification process is agreeing to hire from the local community. At the same time, MASEN hopes to gain additional know-how in more technical fields.