Carbon-neutral energy from power-to-X: Economic opportunity and ecological limitations for Morocco

25.9.2019

As a very sunny and windy country, Morocco is predestined to generate electricity from renewable energy sources. By applying Power-to-X (PtX), this electricity can then be used to produce synthetic fuels such as hydrogen, methane or ammonia in an almost carbon-neutral way. The growing demand for PtX means the Moroccan government’s interest in investing in this process is correspondingly high. A study by Fraunhofer ISI shows: Morocco could become an exporter of carbon-neutral energy sources and make a major contribution to achieving the targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement – if it is able to manage the risks associated with PtX.

PtX means that electricity is used to produce fuels or basic chemicals for fertilizers such as hydrogen, methane or ammonia. The advantage: These substances are produced using electrolysis. The power needed for this can be generated by renewable sources, which makes PtX carbon-neutral overall. This procedure can decarbonize processes, i.e. make them CO2-free, which cannot be decarbonized at present, or are very difficult to decarbonize, such as aviation or shipping.

Morocco: from an importer of fossil energy sources and chemicals to an exporter of PtX?

The »Study on the opportunities of Powert-to-X in Morocco«, compiled by Fraunhofer ISI on behalf of the German-Morrocan Energy Partnership PAREMA and presented to the Moroccan Ministry of Energy, shows: Morocco has the right conditions to become a major supplier of carbon-neutral energy sources. Its climatic conditions are favorable, the country is investing strongly in renewable deployment, and, in addition, the price for renewably generated electricity is falling globally, which lowers the costs of the relatively expensive PtX process.

“Morocco could meet two to four percent of the global demand for PtX (a market of 100 to 680 billion euros in 2050)”, says project coordinator Prof. Wolfgang Eichhammer from Fraunhofer ISI. There is an especially large potential for synthetic ammonia, the basic ingredient for fertilizer. “Morocco currently imports one to two million tonnes of fossil-based ammonia every year. By 2030, it could be producing this quantity itself in a carbon-neutral way using PtX and exporting a similar amount on top of this.”

The lessons from the biofuel dilemma

However, PtX also harbors risks and drawbacks. This is apparent from the Chapter “Ten hypotheses about the future of PtX in Morocco”, which forms the core of the study. “Completely substituting fossil energy sources by synthetic ones will multiply the amount of renewable electricity to be generated”, says Wolfgang Eichhammer. “This would have huge impacts on the environment and resources in Morocco, for example, increasing the consumption of land, water and resources” Eichhammer recalls the discussion about biofuels and the question of their sustainability, for example, due to the displacement of agricultural land in Brazil or Malaysia. “Investments in technologies that replace fossil energy sources but entail other environmental risks have to be weighed up very carefully and linked to sustainability criteria“.

Other problems of PtX: The process is only carbon-neutral if renewable electricity is used. However, surplus electricity from renewable sources is currently limited and at present would only allow low full-load hours for hydrogen electrolysis. The origin of the carbon needed to produce synthetic carbon-based energy sources is also under debate; direct air capture (real recycling of CO2) is technically possible, but still expensive. “Energy efficiency, in other words, reducing demand and limiting PtX to the most relevant applications, is the be-all and end-all“, says Eichhammer. “Moreover, PtX must not be allowed to compete with the general decarbonization of the electricity sector, because there is a limit to the speed at which renewable deployment can be advanced”.

About the study

The “Study on the opportunities of Power-to-X in Morocco” was commissioned by the German-Moroccan Energy Partnership PAREMA and grew out of a cooperation between the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research, the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GIZ and the Moroccan government. Among other things, the study recommends the compilation of a detailed energy and climate strategy for Morocco with explicit targets for 2050, as well as roadmaps for developing hydrogen and other PtX products and the infrastructure needed for this. Fraunhofer supports the development of PtX technologies in both Germany and Morocco.

 

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.