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  • Ecologies of capitalism in Morocco’s renewable energy transition.

  • By : Karen Rignall, PhD, University of Kentucky (Une version française de cet article est disponible en fin de ce dossier)


    This year, Morocco will welcome CoP22 having inaugurated one of the most ambitious renewable energy plans in the world. The country’s renewable energy plan, combining solar, wind, and hydroelectric, aims to provide over half of the country’s energy by 2030. The plan is a ‘projet de grande envergure et structurant,’ a key priority of King Mohamed VI and a focal point for a Moroccan energy policy that has historically relied on imported fossil fuels for 90% of Morocco’s energy needs. There is much to applaud in a governmental strategy that treats renewable energy as essential to economic growth, rather than as a symbolic and marginal addition to the country’s energy mix. Given Morocco’s strategic position vis a vis Europe, this strategy is also an astute political one, placing the country “at the heart of an energy crossroads” (Royaume du Maroc, 2009). Morocco does not only intend to use this energy to mitigate its own fossil fuel consumption, it plans to export energy to the European Union as EU member states reach beyond the continent to meet their ambitious renewal energy goals.


    The level of importance accorded to the renewable energy plan was evident at the inauguration of the Noor I concentrated solar power plant outside of Ouarzazate in February of this year. With European ministers and other national luminaries in attendance, King Mohamed VI traveled to Ouarzazate for the second time in 6 years to emphasize his commitment to one of the Moroccan state’s signature initiatives. What his visit signaled was that solar energy is as much about politics as about energy. Those politics are more complex than the salutary discourse of environmental renewal and remediation indicates on the surface. The political projects involved in renewable energy offer us a challenge, an invitation and an opportunity – a challenge to make connections between renewable energy, existing carbon energy regimes, and relations of power ; an invitation to bring in new voices – like the people whose land was used to build the solar plant in Ouarzazate – to frankly debate who should pay for the legacy of capitalist consumption and reap the benefits of renewable energy ; an opportunity to rethink relations of political and economic inequality long associated with capitalism.


    The “ecology of capitalism” has historically linked the environmental costs associated with fossil fuels and ever-increasing consumption with dispossession of those excluded from capitalism’s “way of life” (Huber 2013). When renewable energy simply “plugs” new sources of energy into an economic and political grid predicated on these historic links between energy, consumption, and dispossession, then very little has indeed changed for most of the world’s population. The renewable energy transition heralded by the new solar plant in Ouarzazate illustrates the stark choices ahead for how far we are ready to take the notion of transition : is it simply transition to cleaner energy or is it a transition to a mode of economic and political life that breaks with the ecology of capitalism’s reliance on inequality and dispossession ?


    The political arrangements making way for an energy transition are, by definition, rooted in existing energy regimes and the governance structures that support them. This is especially true for the land and other resource requirements for renewable energy installations, which are usually much more extensive and require large tracts of land, often in places not used to hosting energy infrastructure. Not surprisingly, many of these installations are sited in places with weak land governance and historically marginalized populations : residents with greater political and economic clout are in a better position to resist unsightly wind farms or other infrastructure that impinges aesthetically on their quality of life. In regions with weak land tenure and opaque governance, however, the concerns are rarely aesthetic. They are about people’s access to land and livelihoods, their ability to exercise sovereignty over their land and reap the economic as well as energy benefits of renewable investments. This is why attending to the political arrangements – an honest inventory of who benefits and who pays for renewable energy and what the social justice implications of the ways of life that energy supports – is so essential.


    For the acquisition of land for the Noor I installation in Ouarzazate, these political arrangements received little public attention outside the rural south, in part because they followed established legal and bureaucratic procedures for transferring collectively-owned land to private owners or government projects. It is precisely the legality of this arrangement and the way it marginalizes the historical owners of the land that underscores the dangers of welcoming a renewable energy transition without a hard look at what kinds of power and politics support such a transition. When MASEN (the Moroccan Solar Energy Agency, to be renamed the Moroccan Renewable Energy Agency as a reflection of its larger portfolio) acquired 3,000 ha of land in the commune of Ghessate outside of Ouarzazate, it utilized a procedure for sale established in 1919 under the French protectorate. The use of closed committees of French officials and Moroccan notables was ostensibly designed to “protect” collective lands under French tutelage but in reality, facilitated the large-scale transfer of lands for French colonization and the enrichment of well-placed notables. This system was never reformed in Morocco after independence, and though Noor I project planners followed the law in purchasing the land, the collective owners of the land had no knowledge of or input into a sale approved solely by their collective land representatives. This has many implications beyond the specific tract of land acquired for the installation.


    While many residents protested the low sale price and the lack of jobs or other benefits the plant would guarantee, this process also rehearsed state practices that historically marginalized rural residents. The sale was part of a larger phenomenon of parceling out collectively owned lands for private gain, fueling land speculation made easier by opaque colonial-era procedures. Though the solar project was a public-private partnership with general public utility, these procedures ensured that the rents generated through the production of electricity and its eventual export to Europe would not be captured by the historic owners of the land. As it always had been, value would be extracted from this peripheral zone for the benefit of the central government or distant investors.


    This turn of events – where land that has historically supported pastoralists, subsistence farming, or other formally “unproductive” land uses is targeted for renewable energy investments – is being repeated around the world. Such investments have the potential to remake our carbon economy but they also open up new frontiers of value, and who can capture that value is dependent on entrenched relations of power.Land is at the heart of this struggle. The indigenous and marginalized peoples who may resist such projects are easily labeled as parochial or on the wrong side of history for not seeing the necessity of a renewable energy transition – they are, after all, used to being seen as non-modern or backward. The power of these time-worn images of rural residents may explain why one of the first impulses of the community outreach program to respond to residents’ concerns around Noor I were to distribute bicycles to local children.


    Resident demands focused on profound questions of political sovereignty and economic justice, but official responses, however well-meaning they may have been, fell back on old tropes of rural development. The question of what stake residents may have in the value produced by the plant – not only as consumers of its power but as sovereigns over the land – is unresolved, or is not being resolved in their favor. And the excitement of Morocco assuming a global leadership position in green energy production easily submerges this question as secondary to the larger public good. When Global North residents can say they do not want renewable energy on their land for aesthetic reasons but the marginalized poor cannot, then we see how the ecology of capitalism is reproduced. Who is slated to continue sacrificing to sustain the lifestyles of wealthy northern consumers ? Who has the right to way of life produced by the energy of a new solar power plant or wind farm ?


    Here lies the opportunity offered to us by renewable energy – an opportunity to rethink those relations of inequality, to rethink who is called upon to pay for renewable energy. It is too simplistic to call the land acquisition for Noor I a land grab. The issues Noor I poses about how political sovereignty relates to economic justice are more complicated than that, but they do challenge political progressives to question discourses of ‘sacrifice’ in renewable energy and to push further for a renewal of capitalism’s ecology in the fullest sense of the term.