The awarding by Masdar of a contract to build a US$600 million (Dh2.2 billion) solar power plant in Abu Dhabi's western desert has created a flash of publicity for the Government's clean energy flagship company. But that could distract attention from work behind the scenes that will be vital to ensuring the emirate's renewable energy programme is sustainable, a researcher said.
"The noise made by the numerous announcements on initiatives related to renewable energies makes it difficult to focus on what conditions are required to translate these initiatives into embedded technologies," said Imen Bachellerie, a researcher in the science and technology programme of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. In a report published in April, Ms Bachellerie pointed to previous GCC renewable energy initiatives that withered on the vine.
In one example from the 1980s, the Saudi government sank more than $35m into a pilot plant in the coastal region of Yanbu with the aim of developing an industrial solar desalination system. Riyadh had set solar-powered desalination as a research and development (R&D) priority and international organisations lined up to take part in the project. But the system did not prove to be technically or economically viable. The project was shut down in 1989, and none of the technology tested at Yanbu was used in commercial desalination plants.
Ms Bachellerie estimates that from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, at least $200m was pumped into R&D projects with foreign partners for renewable energy in Saudi Arabia. Other established Gulf states, including Kuwait and Bahrain, had similar programmes. Did they trigger the transfer of innovations to regional industries where they could be promoted by local scientists and entrepreneurs? Did they create a solid niche for alternative energy technologies appropriate to the region?
Ms Bachellerie said they did not. "On the contrary, these programmes focused on researching and testing novel concepts that generally need an existing science, technology and innovation ecosystem and a long-term research policy to generate products adapted to local needs and constraints. "Such systems simply were not, and still are not, available in the region." If anyone benefited, she said, it was the international technology providers who were able to use the research in other parts of their organisations.
"In general, the scientific knowledge gained in some Saudi [and other GCC] laboratories has not been transferred to the local industrial sector," Ms Bachellerie said. "Such a transfer would have initiated the local private sector's participation in the development, manufacturing and utilisation of solar or wind technology devices." In recent years, fear of rising or volatile oil prices, climate change concerns and environmental disasters such as the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill have stoked global enthusiasm for renewable energy, including a resurgence of interest from GCC countries.
But how could the region avoid repeating what happened in the 1970s and 1980s? Ms Bachellerie and some others advocate a focus on deploying existing renewable energy technologies rather than trying to invent new ones. She also suggests fostering energy-efficiency practices that could turn the indigenous energy market into one in which "smart energy" could become "embedded". Much effort is needed in this area, suggests a recent survey of Arabic-speaking GCC energy consumers by the global consulting company Accenture.
It showed nine out of 10 consumers in the region wanted their countries to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for power generation but most did not want to use less energy. "Our survey shows that [Arab] consumers do not think lower energy use is a priority," said Omar Boulos, the managing director of Accenture, Middle East. "It will take many years before renewable alternatives come fully on stream." Other analysts note that European countries helped to stimulate private investment in solar and wind technology with government subsidies. That option is closed to most Arab states because they already subsidise electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.
Helene Pelosse, the acting director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency based in Abu Dhabi, said the Gulf region could attract investors to its clean energy sector if it developed "well-designed, comprehensive and reliable support mechanisms for the market entry of renewable energy technology". Until that time, Ms Pelosse and other low-carbon advocates had better hope the Gulf's new round of "green" initiatives will have more staying power than the last.