On the edge of the Sahara desert, Morocco is building one of the world’s biggest solar power plants in a project largely funded by the European Union.

It is a hard success for other African nations to match as they seek to implement a new global deal to combat climate change.

The huge 160-megawatt first phase of the Noor plant near the town of Ouarzazate contrasts with efforts by some other nations focused on tiny roof-top solar panels to bring power to remote rural homes.

At Noor, curved mirrors totaling 1.5 million square meters (16 million square feet) – the size of about 200 soccer pitches – capture the sun’s heat in the reddish desert.

Morocco is showcasing Noor before talks among almost 200 nations in Marrakesh about implementing a global deal to combat climate change that entered into force on November 4.

The gleaming concentrated solar power plant is not economically competitive with cheaper fossil fuels, but is a step to develop new technologies as prices for solar power fall sharply.

Morocco aims to get 52 percent of its electricity from clean energy such as wind and solar by 2030, up from 28 percent now.

Once completed, Noor will cost 2.2 billion euros ($2.45 billion) and generate 580 MW, enough power for a city of almost 2 million people. Morocco aims to expand at other desert regions to 2 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2020 at a cost of $9 billion.

On the sprawling site, south of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, workers clear ground with diggers, build concrete pillars or clean off Saharan dust that dims sunshine. In Arabic, Noor means light.

By contrast in East Africa, M-KOPA Solar has installed 400,000 tiny rooftop solar panel systems costing $200 each on homes in the past five years to provide power for light bulbs and a radio. That completely by-passes the grid.

M-KOPA Chief Executive Jesse Moore, whose company focuses most on Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, said rooftop solar systems were a breakthrough for Africa, where half the 1.2 billion people lack electricity.

He noted that Tesla founder Elon Musk was trying to sell solar systems to U.S. homes.

Unlike Morocco, some nations in Africa find it hard to attract investors to green projects, part of global efforts to limit climate change and more floods, heat waves and droughts that are a big threat to Africa.

The European Union including the EIB has funded about 60 percent of Noor. Masen issued Morocco’s first green bond, of 106 million euros, on Friday to help finance Noor.

Unusually for a desert, Morocco has water from the Atlas mountains to help clean off dust. And in some countries, power lines from remote parts of the Sahara could be vulnerable to attacks – Noor’s pylons have red spikes to discourage intruders.

At Noor, the sun’s rays bounce off the mirrors, heat a fluid that in turn heats a vast tank of molten salt that can drive a turbine to generate electricity even after dark. (Reuters)