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Energy in Transition: The Sahara Wind Power Project

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Hired in the summer of 1992 to supervise the building of a farm close to the city of Dakhla, Morocco on the Sahara desert’s Atlantic coast (on the Tropic of Cancer), I was struck by how steady the wind blew.  Three rows of protective windbreaks were necessary to shelter the greenhouses under construction from these winds. Considering the region’s remoteness and difficult fuel logistics for supplying the farm’s electric generators, the idea of utilizing wind as an advantage rather than a nuisance quickly emerged. First in order to ascertain the viability of wind for power generation in this local, a wind resource assessment was needed.  Anemometers were installed on-site in 1993. A visit to the Altamont Pass wind facility in California, which at the time housed 75% of the world’s 2000 MW of operating wind capacity, provided encouragement in potentially harnessing  this wind energy resource back in Morocco. 

As the agricultural assets under construction were owned by the King of Morocco, the director of the agricultural (farm) project where I was employed asked that a report be prepared on the potential of using wind power for this application. The report was submitted to HM King Hassan II in January 1994. Within the context of Moroccan energy scarcity, a wind resource of this magnitude provided appealing economic integration possibilities to address the region’s economic challenges. As a result, shortly after submitting this report, a new leadership team was nominated to head Morocco’s electric utilities with a clear mandate to pursue wind power development.

Demo system

In order to test the viability of wind-generated electricity in the field, a hybrid wind–diesel demonstration system was built between 1994 to 1997 on the farm where initial measurements were taken. The facility consisted in a 55 kilowatt US made wind turbine, backed by two smaller diesel generators. To dispose of flexible loads, the wind turbine was connected to a medium-voltage distribution grid powering a variety of applications, ranging from water pumps, machinery and lighting to a variable-speed/frequency drive ice-making plant. The ice was to be used for freezing the catch from local fishing activity. Considering the regions remoteness, the state of the technology and the rather intricate context within which it was introduced, the continuation of this pioneering field work constituted itself an achievement.

Once completed, the thought of replicating this experience became tempting. The idea of building of a GW size wind project connected to a High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission line to supply North African load centers and to export any surpluses to Europe gradually emerged. It soon became obvious that this regional approach to low-cost wind energy generation required an evaluation from European Union (EU) institutions in Brussels, in order to assess issues such as—amongst others—the legality/competition clauses that such a project would give rise to.  With support from Members of the European Parliament favorable to wind energy, the Energy Directorate XVII of the European Union Commission provided positive feedback indicating the project  could be supported  based on the fact that the funding of trans-European electricity lines could be extended to neighboring states (Morocco) in the interest of enhancing Europe’s energy (supply) security.  

 North Africa-Europe Electric Interconnection at Fardioua, Morocco (2x700 MW-AC)

Source: Sahara Wind Project

Unfolding considerations

As larger transmission infrastructure was required and support from international financial institutions necessary, a dedicated project development entity was clearly needed. Connecting 5 GW of wind capacity to a High Voltage DC line to supply North African and European electricity markets on pure economic grounds sidestepped a variety of technical challenges that the emerging wind industry was facing. To reinforce the original concept and to enable the requisite feasibility studies to be carried out, the Sahara Wind project development company was founded in 2002. Registered under the purpose “Energy for Sustainable Development" the project was unveiled during the third United States (US)-Africa Ministerial Energy Conference held in Casablanca, Morocco in June 2002. Due to its scale, this groundbreaking wind-high voltage direct current transmission project, capable of generating electricity in the vicinity of 3 cents$/kWh, drew particular attention from governments, industry and the media.

The Sahara Wind Project

The Sahara Wind company and its flagship Sahara Wind Project provides a market-based, locally integrated economic development rationale, justifying the transfer of wind technologies in the developing world. Although significant amounts of energy could be transferred by the project’s HVDC line, its sheer size has required an effort of scale. In order to address this issue a joint World Bank (WB)–African Development Bank (AfDB)–United Nations Development Program (UNDP)–Global Environmental Facility (GEF)–Project Development Facility proposal was submitted to the Global Environmental Facility on January 2005. Starting with a threshold capacity of 400–500 MWs in the area of Tarfaya located in Southern Morocco, the Sahara Wind project enabled the phased deployment of 5 GW of wind energy. Under this framework, the technical terms of have been established with the Electric branch of the Office National de l’Electricité et de l’Eau Potable (ONEE), the Moroccan Electric and Water utility operating the national grid.  

Endorsed by the Government of Morocco, the Sahara Wind Project enabled multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank to consider wind energy as an effective driver for economic development. As a result, from 2005, funding from multilateral institutions was provided to all public institutions associated to this project.  This included the Moroccan Ministry of Energy in order to support the long-term renewable energy transition of the sector.

From an initial 50 MW operational since the year 2000, concessional finance (that is finance provided by government with a long grace period at lower than conventional interest rates) boosted Morocco’s wind capacity to 380 MW. 200 MW of Morocco's 380 MW of wind has benefited from this financing directed to public institutions such as ONEE (Morocco's Energy and Water Utility).   Some of this financing (for example) has come in the form of $100 million from the World Bank, $200 million from the European Investment Bank, and $31 million from the Clean Tech Fund through the African Development Bank.  

While 700 MW are under construction, ONEE’s 1000 MW Wind Energy Initiative distributed across 5 different sites will be added to the grid. Bided-out to a single consortium with a wind manufacturer to ensure local industrial integration, ONEE’s initiative will bring Morocco’s wind capacity to 2 GW by 2020. Beyond this capacity, it will be very difficult to integrate additional wind turbines without investing in grid technologies. Through its 5 GW HVDC transmission line linking the Sahara trade wind resources to Morocco’s load centers as well as the European grid on a non-subsidized basis, the Sahara Wind Project opens significant development perspectives for the region.  This is the beauty of the project; due to an exceptionally high capacity factor (45%) and scale, no subsidies are needed to link the Sahara trade wind resources to Morocco’s load centers as well as the European grid (on market terms). This includes investment on the HVDC line as well, which can be used for transferring excess solar energy as well (beyond the 45% capacity factor of wind, when the line is not in use for wind). It can also enable power to be exchanged (imported) from Spain more effectively (more balanced) into North Africa’s grid. The excess power in the Iberian peninsula would in that case be transformed into industrial feedstock’s when reaching this area when the wind is not blowing, or the solar energy production is too low for its expected industrial uses.

Wind with strategic implications

A phased deployment of the Sahara Wind Project can help to sustainably address the region’s most pressing social challenges, building regional capacities on access to wind technologies quickly turned into a security imperative. Morocco is a transit country for many African migrants, and is itself a net exporter of immigrants; together this constitutes a significant security threat to the region and its European neighbors. The situation is fairly similar further to the south in Mauritania, whose scarce population is distributed over a vast territory, and where access to electricity and potable water is difficult to provide through conventional grid infrastructures.

In order to support real-time integrated applications aimed at tackling energy scarcity while fostering sustainable development, Sahara Wind initiated a regional bottom-up capacity building project in 2006. Under the scientific collaborative mechanisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), access to wind energy was selected as a joint research project lead by academic institutions in Morocco and Mauritania. This project enabled smaller, more accessible wind turbines to be deployed within the region’s universities. Introduced through green campus concepts, small wind turbines have been coupled to various end-use applications. Within these academic environments, Africa’s first wind-hydrogen storage system was commissioned at the Al Akhawayn University of Ifrane (AUI) in Morocco in 2012.   Delivered to the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania, the second one currently awaits the completion of its new campus facility. Under these settings, excess wind-electricity is stored as hydrogen through industrial-electrolyzers. The generated hydrogen is then disposed of as electricity through fuel cells in a variety of applications. Besides grid back-up, emergency power supply and smart grid systems, wind-pumping applications are also being tested on the grounds of the Ecole Normale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers (ENSAM) School of engineering in Meknès, Morocco.

The industrial engineering program on small wind turbines carried out as part of this project led to the design and testing of in-house prototypes. Within such a context, small wind turbines, grid management and storage technologies are likely to play an essential role in mobilizing and training a new generation of engineers in the future. In addition telecom operators interested in back-up power solutions for their remote telecom infrastructures partnered in the project. Using the university campuses as a live test facility to power their equipment, telecom operators of Morocco and Mauritania agreed in exchange to provide their vast tower communication infrastructures for conducting an extensive regional wind resource assessment. As a result, telecommunication towers have been fitted with wind measurement instruments on relevant sites throughout the Sahara coastline. This wind monitoring system spreads from Morocco to Mauritania over a distance exceeding 1000 miles.

Partnering with Morocco and Mauritania’s public utilities the Sahara Wind Project’s academic network secured a planning grant from NATO for the production of drinking water in arid regions using renewable energies.  This project aims at enhancing access to drinking water on a regional basis. It consists in coupling electrolyzers with wind turbine sets to generate renewable hydrogen and integrate electrolysis chlorinated by-products within Morocco’s main water treatment facility (Africa’s second largest). By engaging simultaneous demonstrative and capacity-building objectives within an industrial framework to access endogenous renewable resources, this project highlights the role of stand-alone fully integrated water treatment processes. To that end, the development of a green corporate-campus introduced at the International Institute for Water and Sanitation, located on the grounds of Morocco’s Electric and Water Utilities (ONEE) headquarters demonstrates the importance of integrative industrial processes when accessing renewable energies.

Variable load wind-electrolysis for grid stabilization will be tested in a setting where by-products can be integrated on-site with relevant applications. Co-generated hydrogen will be used as a spinning reserve, emergency backup power, and even in clean-mobility applications. A research training program on fuel-cell powered vehicles will be conducted by Morocco’s largest engineering school in partnership with local automotive industries. As a result, access to renewable energies can be addressed through broader synergetic contexts focused on drinking water and multiple uses of renewable hydrogen. The operational feedback gained will facilitate the expansion of integrated solutions in support of Morocco and Mauritania’s utilities.

On the Saharan coastline, where water is already extracted via energy-intensive desalination processes, trade wind-powered applications are quite relevant. Within such regional settings collaborative partnerships can be extended into subsequent pilot projects. Initiated with the power and water utilities, these can be gradually extended to energy-intensive mining industries. This will open possibilities for developing integrated processes aimed at sustainably transforming the regions significant mineral deposits.

A case in point: Morocco’s phosphates industry

The trade winds have shaped the Atlantic Ocean’s currents for millions of years. Dead animals and organic debris streamed towards the African coast were trapped at the bottom of Morocco’s Atlas Mountain range. Their accumulation resulted in today’s deposit of 75% of the world’s known phosphates reserves. Used mainly for the production of fertilizers, their processing into higher value-added derivatives such as phosphoric acid and ammonia provides an unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of the trade winds. As Morocco holds the largest shares of phosphates in the world, Morocco’s state-owned phosphate conglomerate –Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP Group)- which supplies 20% of the world’s fertilizer market-needs to import significant amounts of ammonia for fertilizer production. With nitrogen picked from ambient air, hydrocarbon reforming to extract hydrogen is widely used to generate ammonia (NH4). As a result, most of the hydrogen needed as feedstock in the 140 million tons of ammonia produced each year comes from fossil-fuels. As fertilizer-essential to world food security-represents the main end-uses for ammonia, developing affordable ways to generate hydrogen is a critical issue. Coupled to Morocco’s phosphate-based fertilizer industry, hydrogen from wind-electrolysis could play a constructive role in initiating a broad renewable energy transition.

The wet process preparation of phosphates requires its mixing with a strong acid, which can be either nitric, sulfuric or hydrochloric. Using the latter will open new synergetic processing opportunities in the upgrading of phosphates into phosphoric acid derivatives The production of hydrochloric acid -a mix of Chlorine and water- requires no other feedstock but the earth's most basic elements; namely water and salt (NaCl) mixed in a brine where electrical current is applied. With the availability of wind-electricity, chlorine is generated with hydrogen and caustic soda as by-products.  As chlorine is used for phosphoric acid production, the green-hydrogen can be transformed into ammonia substituting thereby fossil-based ammonia imports for the production of fertilizers. Considering the extraordinary scale of the region’s phosphate and trade wind resources, other synergetic processes could be derived and support the local farming of the trade winds in the operational balancing of the Sahara Wind project’s GW size HVDC line.

As the main feedstock in the production of sulfuric acid, which is currently used in the wet based preparation of phosphates, increases in sulfur prices have created conditions for a resurgence of other alternatives such as the dry based electro-thermal processes. In China, for example, the nature of energy production, largely based on hydroelectric generation at a local level, supplied inexpensive power to phosphoric acid plants for many decades. Since thermal acid production is very energy intensive, this advantage has been decisive in China’s large thermal phosphorus production capacity. The country’s global lead in wind energy generation, which comes with non-negligible grid stability and balancing issues, predisposes wind most favorably in the transformation of phosphates.

While a comprehensive analysis is likely to shed some light, the development of patents and technologies on processes to open these opportunities is of paramount importance. As highlighted during Morocco’s first comprehensive R&D meeting with academia held in 2013, China maintained the lead in the number phosphates processing patents. China is the world’s largest player in the phosphates industry with twice the processing capacity of Morocco. As the extent of its wind energy leadership is unprecedented, China’s example may be indicative on how strategic this combination can be.

In meeting 96% of its primary energy needs through fossil fuel imports, Morocco is a highly vulnerable and import dependent country. Beyond OCP group’s internal policies, Morocco cannot ignore sustainability issues in the energy-intensive processing of its phosphates reserves. In dedicating its earlier phosphoric acid production facilities for research and development, OCP group intends to tackle this as a matter of utmost importance.

As a priority research area for Morocco, the OCP group participated in the 'Sahara Trade Wind to Hydrogen' applied research project with the framework of NATO's Science for Peace program.  From its inception in 2006, through its now dissolved Centre d'Études et de Recherches des Phosphates Minéraux (CERPHOS) branch, OCP group has been involved in scientific networks co-funded by the Sahara Wind Project.

Mauritania’s iron-ore mining

Initiated in 1952, and accounting for 28% of Mauritania’s GDP which provides over 50% of the country’s total exports (measured by value), iron-ore mining is Mauritania’s main industry. The Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière (SNIM) of Mauritania in charge of this activity, disposes of reserves estimated in the billion ton range in the Northwest of the country. As Mauritania’s prime industrial conglomerate, and Africa’s second largest iron-ore exporter, the state-owned company owns 400 dedicated miles of railroad tracks to ship its iron-ore from Zouerate to the port of Nouadhibou. With the expansion of its harbor, SNIM aims at tripling its current 13 million ton per year iron-ore exports to over 40 million ton per year by 2025.

Beyond this capacity expansion, and with exports split between Europe and China, Mauritania’s iron-ore markets will gradually require local processing. Europe’s environmental regulations limiting iron-ore dusts in its harbors have already led the company to consider pre-processing alternatives for its ore exports. For this to happen, an effort of scale will be needed. Due to its rather modest size, Nouadhibou’s harbor has limited power generating capacities. This prevents any energy-intensive processes from being engaged locally. The example of the Société Arabe du Fer et de l’Acier (SAFA) foundry is quite indicative of the situation. As a subsidiary of SNIM, SAFA operates several electric arc furnaces and steel induction ovens.  Yet their operations are hampered by the city’s lack of power generating capacities.

Located on the Sahara trade wind coastline, Nouadhibou has access to an outstanding, if not exceptional wind resource. From the wind measurements taken on-site as part of our regional collaborative frameworks with the University of Nouakchott, the recorded wind speeds could generate wind-electricity at very competitive costs. Due to its availability (with over a 45% capacity factor), high wind penetration rates can be achieved for the production of valuable feedstocks. From utility desalinated water and water treatment solutions, these can gradually be extended to cover the energy intensive processing of iron-ore. Smaller in capacities, integrated electrochemical processes for the hydrogen direct-reduction of iron-ore, could be introduced. The capacity build-up and local firming of wind-electricity directly to iron-ore plants could be gradually expanded and cover the entire value chain. This would lead to a carbon-free production of high-grade steels.

Considering the importance of this sector for Mauritania, the University of Nouakchott reinforced its mineral engineering/processing department. Equipped with a wind-hydrogen storage system, the training and development of pilot applications with the country’s iron-ore conglomerate may be facilitated.

Both institutions have indeed made significant investments in renewable energy technologies. The University of Nouakchott was endowed with a US$ 30 million grant from the United Arab Emirates to build a 14 MW photovoltaic plant near its new campus. The latter covers 10% of Mauritania’s entire generating capacity. With investments of its own and a more modest 3MW Photovoltaic plant underway, SNIM commissioned Mauritania’s first wind farm. Located near Nouadhibou, 16 wind turbines with a cumulative capacity of 4.5 MW are already powering SNIM’s industrial facilities.

The Future

The transformation of Mauritania’s large iron-ore deposits and Morocco’s phosphate reserves will likely become a central issue in the years to come. As part of the energy-water and global food nexus they represent multi-generational global sustainable development imperatives that will mobilize the region’s industries for some time to come. Since large shares of national budgets are dedicated to the education sector in Morocco and considering the country’s fossil fuel dependency, the development of economic alternative energy power generation is a critical issue. Possessing fairly limited fossil fuel reserves of its own, this approach could also improve Mauritania's dire access to energy.  Political support for these perspectives is significant as these technologies can address the region’s current economic challenges. Fossil fuel dependencies are indeed responsible for most of Morocco’s and to a lesser extent Mauritania’s structural trade deficits. As wind technologies become more accessible to North African industry, their transfer through capacity building, training and educational programs will contribute to educating and mobilizing the region’s youth in developing a more inclusive energy economy and an expanded employment base. 

While ONEE’s 1000 MW Integrated Wind Energy initiative co-funded by the African Development Bank seeks to provide an enhanced local wind manufacturing base for this to happen, additional benefits will be drawn from the country’s Renewable Energy Law 13-09. By enabling wind electricity to be distributed directly to industrial end-users the law opens new opportunities to match power generation with demand. This is likely to improve the integration of wind energy into the region’s grids.

Just as with Morocco’s phosphates industries, the processing of Mauritania’s iron-ore deposits with renewable energy uses a regional bottom-up approach to the deployment of renewables on a large scale.  With today’s surging energy demand, the region’s electricity supply will need to quadruple in the next 20 years. Besides improving local access to wind-electricity, the Sahara Wind Project High Voltage DC line can provide substantial amounts of cost-competitive green electricity to North African load centers. The latter will be indispensable to cover their growing electricity needs and sustain the region’s economic development.

By importing 20% of its current electric consumption from Spain, Morocco relies on its interconnection to the European electric grid. Within such a context, the Sahara Wind Project’s HVDC transmission line could rebalance this trend and enable excess intermittent wind power flows to be exported to Iberian markets on purely commercial grounds. In helping Europe achieve its 2020 Renewable Energy targets at no extra-cost, the legal basis for this to happen has already been laid-out in the export clause of Morocco’s 13-09 renewable energy law.  The implementation of Article 09 of the European Union (EU) renewable energy targets directive for 2020 which includes imports from thirds countries, allows these exchanges to happen.


The Atlantic trade winds powering the Sahara Wind project HVDC transmission line

Source: Sahara Wind Project

When focusing on a locally integrated economic development model to support comprehensive access to the Sahara trade winds, broader energy security challenges can be addressed.  This approach not only generates jobs and economic value where needed but contributes to support a cleaner and more efficient processing of mineral resources. In being economically sound, regionally integrated,  and gradually deployed this approach might serve as a model for a broader energy transition not only within this region but beyond.

Contributor Khalid Benhamou is Managing Director, Sahara Wind, 32 Av Lalla Meryem Souissi Rabat, Morocco

 

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