This RAPID grant establishes the foundations for long-term ethnographic fieldwork examining an ambitious renewable energy development project in North Africa. The umbrella organization for a complex nexus of public and private investors, seeks to connect Europe's power grid to a series of solar and wind farms with claims that this 400 billion euro "super grid" of electricity production may be able to supply 15% of Europe's energy needs by 2050. This grant allows for urgent research on the construction and bringing online of the initial solar farm. The research will examine how residents and the organization officials experience and understand the launch of this first critical component. The researcher will conduct approximately ten weeks of interviews and preliminary ethnographic fieldwork first with organization staff at its headquarters and those of its affiliates, then with local officials and community. The ethnographer will examine the cultural perspectoves that operate in the planning of the development of energy resources of Northern Africa and compare these to how local people and communities living near the initial site understand the implications of environmental investment and development.

What kinds of material, infrastructural, and cultural differences are brought together in this ambitious trans-continental project, and how are they experienced and negotiated by people involved "on the ground." How are complex political relationships, and transfers of capital and technology, between European and North African stakeholders, structured and managed? What comparisons and contrasts may be relevant in weighing Europe's historically colonialist interventions against its current development of North African renewable energy resources? This ethnographic study will help us to understand the trans-cultural dynamics, ethical issues, and lived realities of a new generation of trans-border, trans-regional energy development.

Project Report

This project took seed in the fall of 2012, when I learned about a German environmental initiative called "Desertec" in a talk about renewable energy. Desertec is a non-governmental organization—a complex coalition of scientists, industrial leaders, educators, and investors—that envisions a future in which much of the world's power will be provided by the sun, and in particular the sun that shines down upon the world's deserts. In its ambitious and utopian vision, it seeks to encourage the construction of a 400 billion euro ($774 billion) "super grid" of electricity production stretching across much of North Africa and Western Europe, in which electricity from the Sahara Desert will reach Europe through a series of sub-Mediterranean cables. One of its first "pilot projects"—a project that will serve as a precedent and model for further promotion and construction of the Desertec grid—is a solar power plant being built just outside of the town of Ouarzazate, in Southeastern Morocco. This research took place over two six-week periods of research, in July-August of 2013 and June-July of 2014 and largely followed the methodologies and research activities outlined in my RAPID proposal including audio-recorded and video-recorded interviews, and participant observational methods. Ethnographic experience and findings During research in 2013 and 2014, I met in Germany with several officials at Desertec and Dii (Desertec’s, now-independent industrial wing, a coalition of companies like Siemens that would provide the project’s technical capacity). In Ouarzazate, in Morocco, I spoke with dozens of people—businessmen, taxi drivers, hotel receptionists, university students, and manual laborers—about what they understood about the solar plant and how it might change their lives. Many Moroccans told me they were attaching dreams and aspirations of improved jobs, education, and livelihoods to the arrival of the plant; in Germany, I was assured that the electricity produced in the plant would be "for Moroccans," and not merely to satisfy Europe’s growing energy demands or the European Union’s mandated transition towards renewable sources.[1] The main findings of this ethnographic research are the following: 1) Lack of information and mediation: One of the most pervasive aspects of this ethnographic inquiry was that people (both in the town of Ouarzazate and the villages surrounding it) lacked access to information about the plant’s construction and about solar energy development in Morocco more broadly. There was a paucity of information available due to a lack of newspapers or other media that might cover the plant and solar energy, and what little people did know they had gathered either from one of the few national television news reports (often in conjunction with a visit to the site by King Mohammed VI) or from rumor. Few people in Ouarzazate understood who was building the plant; how it was being funded; when it would be completed; or who would own the electricity. 2) Uneven access to work and benefits: One complaint that some villagers had about the solar plant’s hiring practices had to do with the ways in which some villages seemed to have connections with particular hiring contractors—or directly with MASEN—which gave them access to jobs at the site while other villages were seemingly locked out. Some villagers suggested that certain village heads had "connections" to these hired contractors and/or the state. Others said that they were told that they lacked necessary "skills" for the construction work at the plant—but explained that this meant that the only people getting jobs at the plant were those who already had access to basic education or technical training, thus perpetuating inequality between those with access to education (mainly from Ouarzazate and other towns/cities) and those without this access (villagers and rural people). 3) Changing conceptions of environment: In asking people in and around the town of Ouarzazate what the larger meaning of solar energy was for their communities and also for Morocco, most did not have a sense that the plant would contribute to a "healthier environment" or planet, that it would reduce pollution, etc. Indeed the word and concept of "environment" was most usually associated with surrounding land, agriculture, and access to water. But it was also beginning to take on additional meanings as a kind of resource for the future—a means to a better future both for the Ouarzazate region and the nation. One young man at a local business called Ouarzazate Solaire explained, "People don’t really know about environmentalism… but they are learning about it as a result of the power station and now I even meet rural farmers who say that they want to save money by installing solar panels, but also that it will protect the land and resources." [1] [2] [3] See, e.g., MASEN’s July 2011 impact study: [4] See Annexe 4, "Etude d’impact environnementale et sociale cadre du projet de complexe solaire d'Ouarzazate (Maroc)," MASEN July 2011.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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Temple University
United States
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