Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Frederick Vreeland, High Solar Rollers, and the Looting of the Western Sahara

While researching my last post on Samuel J. Spector and Hurst Hannum, I reread Ambassador Frederick Vreeland’s March 3, 2007, New York Times op-ed in support of Morocco’s autonomy proposal. Once again, Vreeland’s arguments in favor of autonomy were firmly slapped down by Professor Hannum in a letter to the editor the next day, and, in addition, three weeks later, the Times issued a correction stating that the “Op-Ed article should have more fully disclosed the background of the author,” as he was “also the chairman of a solar-energy company that has had contracts with the Moroccan government.”

Not having heard anything out of Vreeland for quite a while, I got to wondering what he was up to – especially since solar-energy has been a hot topic of late. Apparently, he’s been up to quite a bit.

His Marrakech-based solar-power company, Noor Web, is “a supplier of photovoltaic systems and related energy services in rural and remote areas of Morocco,” according to the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, which in 2002 had received a project financing application from Noor Web. Vreeland founded the company in 1996 with financial backing from E & CO, an energy investment spin-off from the Rockefeller Foundation and has served as chairman ever since. As of mid-2002 when the IFC released its project report, ownership included: “Shell Overseas Investment (39%); Al Tayyar – a middle east investment fund-- (21%); Marocaine Industrielle Financière Agricole (18%); Mr. Frederick Vreeland –an individual-- (10%); E&Co (9%), and others (3%).” This is one very well-connected company with very deep pockets. Shell Overseas Investment is a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell; Al Tayyar is an Abu Dhabi-based renewable energy investment fund founded by Prince Moulay Hicham of Morocco, cousin of King Mohammed VI; Vreeland brings in his heavy-duty US government connections; and again E & CO has the Rockefeller connection.

Until recently, Noor Web appears to have concentrated on small-scale solar projects in the mountainous province of Taroudant south of the company’s offices in Marrakech. From an interview with Noor Web executives, by 2001 they were serving a mere 2,200 customers and acquiring 200 new households a month.

Increasingly, it seems that Noor Web’s small-scale orientation is changing. The last couple years have seen seismic changes in Morocco’s solar-power landscape. Most notably, two gargantuan solar initiatives have emerged -- one from the Moroccan government and the other a European/Mediterranean group.

Back in July 2008, Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) alerted us to the launch by Morocco’s Office Nacional de l’Electricité (ONE) of an invitation for the expression of interest and prequalification for three solar plant projects (using “electricity generation technology … based on Photovoltaic (PV) panels”), one based in Morocco (Ouarzazate) and the other two in occupied Western Sahara (Dakhla and Boujdour).
According to the tender, dubbed the Courak Iniative (appearing also as Chourouk), the awarded company would “construct, operate and own the plant for a period of 20 years,” during which ONE would buy all the electricity generated. WSRW strongly criticized the inclusion of Dakhla and Boujdour in the prequalification tender:

The planned investment could provide the necessary infrastructure to further back up Moroccan industry and illegal settlers in the neighbouring and occupied country Western Sahara. The UN has previously asked Morocco to terminate the occupation of Western Sahara, but now Morocco offers the world electricity companies a 20 year contract in the occupied territory…. Morocco has in the offering presented Dakhla and Boujdour of being within "the Kingdom of Morocco", despite the fact that no state in the world recognises Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Keeping on top of the issue, WSRW in February 2009 listed the names of the 21 groups that were prequalified to participate in the tender, urged them to withdraw from the tender, and informed them that any awarded company that started supplying electricity in occupied territory would be “subject to a public campaign.” Within the context of this article, the name on the list that jumps out is number 16, Solar Ecopower/Taqa/Noorweb /Solon.

Noor Web’s prequalified group offers up impressive credentials in the energy and solar sectors to complement its already impressive ownership pedigree. Solar Ecopower is a German company that provides “investor services for large scale solar PV farms/plants, solar PV system integration, and procurement services and direct product sales.” Abu Dhabi-based Taqa describes itself as “a global leader in the energy sector…. that is fully integrated with operations from wellhead to wall socket.” It has majority ownership by the government of Abu Dhabi and minority shares traded on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange. Taqa has a huge and long-established foothold in Morocco with a 30-year contract to operate the Jorf Lasfar coal-fired plant 130 kilometres southwest of Casablanca which on average supplies 50% of the country’s electricity demand. Solon is a publicly-traded Berlin-based manufacturer of photovoltaic solar systems with an expertise in power-plant construction.

Morocco’s solar plans became clearer in November 2009 when Rabat officially launched a $9 billion dollar solar energy project, expected to meet 38% of the country’s energy needs by 2020. While the 2008 prequalification tender mentioned Ouarzazate, Boujdour, and Dakhla as the sites for solar plants, the new plan identified again Ouarzazate and Boujdour, but replaced Dakhla with Ain Bni Mathar, Foum Al Oued and Sebkhat Tah. Of the new lineup, Ouarzazate and Ain Bni Mathar are in Morocco and Boujdour and Foum Al Oued are in occupied Western Sahara. Sebkhat Tah appears to straddle the border. At the end of February 2010, Morocco officially opened up for bids on construction of the Ouarzazate facility, and the commercial operation date for Ouarzazate was projected for March 2015.

At the same time as Morocco was ratcheting up its solar plans, a pan-Mediterranean group, the DESERTEC Foundation, was putting together a massive 400 billion euro solar energy plan to meet potentially over 50% of the electricity needs of the EUMENA region (Europe, the Middle East, North Africa) by 2050. A major part of this vision involves harnessing the solar potential, and to a lesser degree the wind, of the Sahara and exporting North African energy to Europe. The DESERTEC Concept has been around since 2003, when it was developed by the German Club of Rome and a network of experts called Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC). The project started to gather steam in 2008 with the birth of the DESERTEC Foundation to coordinate the activities of the DESERTEC Networks, the creation of the Mediterranean Solar Plan by the Union for the Mediterranean, and the launching of the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative (Dii Gmbh). To get a graphic depiction of DESERTEC’S vision for solar (and wind) power development in North Africa and the prominence of the Western Sahara in that vision, I urge you to link here to the DESERTEC Foundation’s website.

Given the importance of the Western Sahara in both DESERTEC’s scheme and Rabat’s solar plans, there has been much speculation about whether DESERTEC might place one of its test plants in the occupied territory. In an April 23, 2010, article in the UK Guardian, a DESERTEC spokesperson stated that while Morocco was a “a natural choice for the first Desertec pilot plant as the country is already connected to Spain via a sub sea electricity cable,” they would not build in the Western Sahara for “reputational reasons.” A German NGO, the Society for Threatened People, had earlier condemned Morocco’s plans to build a solar plant in Boujdour and had urged DESERTEC to reveal where they planned to build their first pilot project in Morocco. These words from DESERTEC are certainly encouraging. Nevertheless, I wonder how long DESERTEC can maintain this principled stance as it becomes more and more evident that the occupied status of the Western Sahara and chilly relations between Morocco and Algeria might jeopardize the feasibility of the whole project

It would be fair to say that Frederick Vreeland very much finds himself in the right place at the right time. He has been on the ground in Morocco since 1996 doing solar, and the solar market appears to be on the verge of exploding. Morocco’s tender for Ouarzazate is ongoing, but of course building a solar power plant there is not a problem since it would be in Morocco. Where the solar picture gets far thornier is when and if Morocco opens up for bids on Boujdour and Foum Al Oued in the Western Sahara. Given that almost all groups looking into the matter see the solar potential of the Western Sahara as far greater than that of Morocco, it will be interesting to see how Rabat proceeds. Any companies bidding on those contracts in the occupied zone would undoubtedly find themselves the target of widespread international condemnation along the lines of Western Sahara Resource Watch’s campaign against oil exploration companies that chose to explore in and off Moroccan-occupied territory. Would Shell, for instance, with the largest ownership stake in Noor Web, risk an international campaign against it by getting involved in the Western Sahara?

One aspect of the Morocco and Western Sahara solar issue that hadn’t occurred to me until I started looking into all this is the heavy involvement of Germany. Germany has historically shown little interest in the Western Sahara. This might be about to change. It seems that wherever I looked in researching this post, some German connection appeared. Two of Noor Web’s partner companies in the group that was pre-qualified for the solar business, Solar Ecopower and Solon, are German companies. The DESERTEC Industrial Initiative (Dii Gmbh) is a German company and the DESERTEC Concept very much has its roots in Germany. Furthermore, when Morocco announced its 9 billion dollar solar plan, one report noted: “Among potential partners, Morocco has already secured agreement with the World Bank, the European Commission, and Germany. During a visit to Berlin in January, the Chief Executive of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy Mustapha Bakkoury held talks with officials from Germany’s development bank KfW about investing in the pioneering project.” Somehow energy issues have a way of leading Germany and German leaders into the arms of strange bedfellows. Look, for instance, at former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s canoodling with Vladimir Putin while in office and his relationship with various Russian oil interests, especially involving the Nord Stream pipeline project, after stepping down. An increased German government perception that it is in its national interest as well as the interest of some of its companies to side with Morocco could lead to a higher profile supporting Rabat, which would be a highly unwelcome development.

What does this all mean for the Western Sahara? With the potential for solar energy perhaps rivaling or even exceeding that of oil, Morocco, its agents, and its sympathizers will almost certainly let out all stops in attempting to convince the international community that the Western Sahara must be recognized as part of Morocco. This has actually already begun, as the U.S. media over the past year has been bombarded by an unprecedented volume of pro-Moroccan articles urging the U.S. government, the world community, and the UN to recognize and accept Moroccan rule over the non-self-governing territory. Contrary to international law, Morocco is already looting the fish and phosphates of the Western Sahara. The potential for solar generation in the Sahara is so huge that it is hard to imagine that Rabat won’t go all out to also steal the sun.

And what can we expect from Frederick Vreeland? I rather suspect that given his conflict-of-interest and transparency issues and his well-known propensity for supporting Rabat’s expansionist agenda, he will keep a very low profile on the PR front and will concentrate instead on making money and lobbying his buddies in the U.S. government to support Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Besides I assume he is more than happy to let his fellow-ex-ambassadors-to-Morocco, Michael Ussery and Ed Gabriel, do the dirty work for him. Once again his company, Noor Web, has already prequalified, as part of Ecopower/Taqa/Noorweb/Solon, for upcoming Moroccan solar projects, and he has shown interest in proceeding to the next level; he was recently quoted by a group called North Africa Advisers as saying, “I am interested in the Morocco government’s $9 billion solar energy project announced under the auspices of King Mohammed VI in early November 2009.” And should Rabat go ahead with its plans to loot the sun of the Sahara, Frederick Vreeland will undoubtedly do what he has always done, which is to ignore international law and the rights of the Western Saharans in pursuit of his own self-interest.

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