* Morocco will invite bids for solar plant in February
* The plant is part of $9 billion solar project
* Morocco wants to play a leading role in European scheme
(Adds more details, background)
JORF LASFAR, Morocco, Jan 6 Morocco will invite bids for construction of its first solar power station at the end of next month as part of a $9 billion solar energy project, its energy minister said on Wednesday.
The 500-megawatt plant will be in the southern town of Ouarzazate, the site where Morocco's ruler, King Mohammed, announced the launch of the nationwide solar project last year.
"We are advancing smoothly in our plan to implement this grand project. We will tender for the Ourzazate station at the end of February," Energy Minister Amina Benkhadra told Reuters at the inauguration of a gas storage facility at the port of Jorf Lasfar, outside Casablanca.
Morocco's solar plan involves building five stations which will account for 38 percent of its installed power generation by 2020, Rabat government officials.
"We will start first with the tender for Ourzazate power station and the tenders for the others will follow successively," Benkhadra added. But she gave no more details.
Morocco, which is the only North African state with no oil of its own, wants to play a leading role in an European plan to draw solar power from the Sahara.
The European solar scheme, which is worth up to 400 billion euros ($564 billion), could allow Europe to source 15 percent of its power from mirrors that gather sunlight in the vast southern desert by 2050.
The mirrors would concentrate the sun's rays to boil water and power turbines, generating electricity without emitting the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
Morocco is the poorest of the European Union's southern neighbours but one of its closest allies in the region. It has a history of political stability and reforms to improve its business environment have led to steady rises of foreign investment flow in the past 10 years.
Benkhadra said Morocco is open for cooperation with various foreign governments and firms.
"We had received expressions of interest from several foreign states and from big foreign companies which want to take part in our solar project," she added.
Asked whether Morocco is looking for firms from its main trade partners in Europe, Benkhadra said:
"Morocco is open for all forms of partnership as long as the foreign firms have the capabilities to bring expertise, technology and know-how. We are looking for public-private partnerships as well as national-and-foreign partnerships." (Reporting by Lamine Ghanmi, editing by Marguerita Choy)