Five things you need to know about community buy-in in Morocco

Boris Schinke, policy officer at the German NGO Germanwatch, has just completed some compelling new research on the social impacts of CSP development in the MENA region: “Energy and development: Exploring the local livelihood dimension of the Noor I CSP project in Southern Morocco.”

The walled city of Aït Benhaddou, near Ouarzazate, in Morocco. Image: iStock.

By Susan Kraemer

With his partners at Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and the Bonn International Center for Conversion, together with an interdisciplinary consortium of Moroccan and Egyptian research and civil society institutions, Schinke took a close look at Morocco’s 160 MW Noor I CSP trough project in Ouarzazate. This is the first tranche of a 500 MW solar complex under the Moroccan solar plan aiming at 2000 MW solar, 2000 MW wind and 2000 MW hydro energy by 2020.

The goal was to determine how local stakeholders can benefit from future CSP projects in the region, by assessing positive and negative livelihood consequences stemming from CSP development at the local level.

The findings are based on an in-depth empirical analysis that included more than 300 interviews, focus groups, an expert survey and validation workshops during three months of field research in Morocco.

Renewable leader in the MENA region

"We chose the Noor CSP plant in Ouarzazate because, as an early mover, the success of Noor's first phase will affect the regional and even global perceptions of the feasibility of CSP technology as an accessible low-carbon alternative to planned conventional electricity infrastructures", Schinke explains.

Already, Germanwatch ranks the Kingdom within the top 10 countries globally for climate and clean energy policies. Under the patronage of King Mohammed VI, the country has set an ambitious target to achieve 42% of installed capacity from renewable energy by 2020, and the Kingdom has put in place strong governmental policies to get there through the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen).

Among all Arab countries, Morocco now has the most renewable generation under construction and the most renewables supplying its grid. However, the country has not simply prioritised its solar ambition out of concern for the climate, but rather as means to achieve multiple development objectives.

Embedded within national development plans, the production of green electrons is envisioned to yield long-lasting dividends in terms of energy security, self-reliance and balance of payments as well as to grow local economies through integrated solar development projects along the renewables value chain.

Local development in the neighbourhood of Noor

And indeed the research of Schinke and his team proved that efforts of aligning CSP deployment to meet broader human development objectives and of integrating the project within the productive structure of the local economy were both real and substantial in the context of Noor.

"While community outcomes of large-scale investments are rarely the focus of governments or investors, and generally only marginally benefit the local population, Masen’s foresight and planning in selecting the site and generating multiple co-benefits from the country’s first standalone CSP plant were commendable,” says Schinke.

In their analysis, the researchers found that the construction of Noor I provided more than 1,500 Moroccan jobs, of which 700 were generated locally in the Ouarzazate area, and that the creation of local employment had strengthened family ties and social support through reversed migratory flows and new incomes.

Furthermore, the proceeds of the land acquisition were reinvested into a social development plan targeting improved access to and availability of important social services in neighbouring communities.

Lastly, Masen addressed the limited local industrial base by accompanying its local procurement with measures of skill development and R&D to increase the local productivity throughout the entire value chain of the project.

As a result, by contrast with the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) attitude in other countries, Noor I was received very positively in the region, and with a widespread sense of patriotic pride in the project. As approval and support of local communities cannot be taken for granted, Schinke highlights, "that much of Noor I's high degree of community acceptance can be attributed to Masen's efforts at the local level".

Top-down planning is not enough, communities want a say too

However, the researchers also encountered pockets of criticism among the local population. Concerns about the project's operational water demands and an education-labour market mismatch were high. "But still, unlike the potential harm associated with fossil fuel power plants, the negative footprint of Noor I was found to be generally low ", explains Schinke.

While the effects of Noor I's water cooling demands (0.7% of the average annual volume of the region's water reservoir will have to be monitored closely throughout the project's lifespan and dry cooling has been chosen for the next phases of Noor II and Noor III to avoid any harm on downstream oases, the research emphasised another issue of concern for local citizens.

“Our findings illustrate that providing jobs, incomes, building up knowledge and skills, as well as improvements to the infrastructure of local communities are only one side of community acceptance. The other side is characterised by the procedural dimension of community engagement and transparent decision-making,” Schinke points out.

"For some fractions of the local population it was in particular the perceived shortfalls of the project to provide transparent information to affected communities that prevented an ideal degree of community buy-in to the project".

As a consequence, the project development process was partly left in veils of secrecy for the majority of communities. Many citizens had unrealistic hopes especially in regards to jobs and were frustrated to not see their expectations materialise.

Communication and participation is key

"CSP Technology is no panacea for development and Masen's role in the context of Noor should not be confused with the responsibilities that fall upon the Government of Morocco, which is to alleviate regional poverty and to address the many development challenges that prevail in the country's South” Schinke explains.

"While Masen's approach to address the local dimension of the Noor project provides inspiring elements for the international CSP community upon which the further roll-out of CSP should be built, there are certain aspects that need improvement", Schinke’s colleague, El Mostafa Jamea of the Moroccan research institution, MENARES, adds.

According to the study, these improvements should focus on doing things in a better way, rather than on doing more in terms of socio-economic benefits. Despite complying with domestic and international laws, the research identified a clear need for Masen to pick up a more structured community engagement strategy.

Good advice for the entire CSP industry

For the future of the Noor solar complex, the researchers are convinced that the most critical aspect that needs to be addressed to ensure continued growth of CSP in Morocco, will be allowing for a genuine community dialogue and meaningful citizen participation - not only during the subsequent phases of the Noor solar complex - but also for other planned solar projects under the Moroccan Solar Plan.

Also, in their recommendations the researchers address the international CSP community. Based on the Moroccan case study, they argue that project developers, governments and international lenders involved in the scale-up of CSP should take the Masen approach as example but move even more beyond legal and/or donor requirements as well as environmental and social safeguards provided by Multilateral Development Banks.

Instead, Schinke concludes, that "for the future CSP roll-out to follow a socially robust path, it should be embedded in the livelihood context of local communities with a strong commitment to participatory decision-making and by taking into account the interests, rights and needs of affected communities throughout the project's entire lifespan.”