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[ALGIERS] Morocco has launched what it claims is the biggest solar-thermal energy project in a single country, aiming to produce nearly 40 per cent of its electricity needs — 2,000 megawatts (MW) — by 2020.

The project will span an area of 10,000 hectares — just under half the size of Cairo, Egypt — at five different locations in the country and use concentrated solar-thermal power (CSP), which focuses a large area of sunlight onto a small area using lenses, to produce electricity.

Morocco hopes that the plant will supply 38 per cent of the country's electricity needs by 2020. The government has pledged US$9 billion from public and private funds for the project. It says the new energy source will mean it can decrease its oil imports by 12 per cent, saving the country US$500–700 million annually.

Morocco is the only non-oil producing country in North Africa, depending on oil imports for most of its energy.

"This project will help Morocco reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 3.7 million tonnes of CO2. This will help us play our role in mitigation of climate change," said Said Mouline, director of the Center for Renewable Energy Development in Morocco.

"Clean energy projects such as this will create many new jobs in the areas selected for the solar plants as well as boost the country's scientific expertise in the field of solar energy," he added.

Fatiha Bouhired, researcher at the Center for the Development of Renewable Energy, Algeria, said: "This project is very important and ambitious, but I'm worried because usually the absence of legal mechanisms leads to continuous delays and most of the time the governments are not willing to invest enough money in these long-term projects".

Morocco already has several renewable energy projects. A windmill farm near the northern city of Tangiers produces 140MW of electricity and another near Tarfaya on the southwestern coast of the country will begin working in 2011 to produce 300MW.

Before this project, the biggest proposed CSP project in a single country was a 1,300 MW project in the United States.

Funding for the project will come from the government, the National Office of Electricity, and the Hassan II Fund for Economic and Social Development. An international tender will be held at the end of the month for foreign partners. Japan, the United Arab Emirates and the United States have all expressed interest in taking part.

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