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States that are notably poorer than their neighbours in petroleum reserves, such as Morocco and Jordan, are eager to achieve energy self-sufficiency and export surplus power.
States that are notably poorer than their neighbours in petroleum reserves, such as Morocco and Jordan, are eager to achieve energy self-sufficiency and export surplus power.

Power play is under way

Though Arab nations are among the biggest oil exporters, some have imported energy products to avert shortages at home. Developing green alternatives may help exports.

Though Arab nations are among the biggest oil exporters, some have imported energy products to avert shortages at home. Developing green alternatives may help them in their search for sustainability. Tamsin Carlisle reports With its vast stores of oil and gas, the MENA region is the last place one might expect renewable energy to be in vogue. Yet interest in wind, solar and hydroelectric power has grown tremendously here in the past few years, driven by, of all things, energy shortages.

In various countries in the region, renewable energy initiatives are well under way, some running into billions of dollars. Governments, including that of the UAE, have renewable energy targets for power sectors largely under state control. Much has been made of the high ranking of Gulf states such as the UAE and Kuwait in the World Wide Fund for Nature's annual carbon footprint standings. Those nations have taken the environmental criticism to heart, with officials vowing improvement.

"We are often asked why we are setting our goal so high. Our answer is because someone must," said Dr Sultan Ahmed al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Government alternative energy company. "Someone must push the envelope to create the solution that we, as a global community, so urgently require." Worsening summer power shortages in the GCC have provided a more compelling impetus for change.

This past summer, major power cuts slowed industry in the emirate of Sharjah and in the second-biggest Saudi city of Jeddah, while Kuwait imported liquefied natural gas from Russia to keep its power plants supplied with fuel. That helped focus minds throughout the Arabian peninsula on the need to harness the region's vast solar potential as a supplementary power source. GCC countries have not developed their gas resources quickly enough to keep pace with demand from their power and petrochemical sectors. Nor do they wish to burn oil to generate electricity, although Saudi Arabia and others have resorted to that. The practice is expensive, leaves less oil for export and pollutes the air. As such, Gulf states are turning seriously to low-carbon electricity alternatives.

Similar stories are playing out elsewhere in the region. Not every Arab country is rich in oil and gas and those importing most of their energy are keen to lessen the burden on their economies. States that are notably poorer than their neighbours in petroleum reserves, such as Morocco and Jordan, are eager to achieve energy self-sufficiency. Some anticipate export opportunities through developing renewable power if they can move the electricity to major markets such as Europe.

The North African countries are especially well positioned for this as they explore the potential for developing wind farms and solar arrays. Morocco is currently the only country in the Maghrib region linked to the European power grid. Others, such as the OPEC members Algeria and Libya, expect opportunities to export more gas if they use less of the fuel for power generation. In time, more high-capacity undersea transmission cables may be installed between North Africa and Europe. Alternatively, the Mediterranean Ring project to connect the grids of countries encircling the Mediterranean Sea may be completed. Both developments seem likely if the German-backed Desertec project to supply renewable power from MENA countries to Europe gains traction.

Anchoring MENA is Egypt, a country of great cultural and political importance to the region that is neither a clear net energy exporter nor importer. Its mixed economy and teeming population have high and growing energy needs, the main reason the nation is a net oil importer. It still exports some gas, but has had a moratorium on new gas exports since last year. The government might extend the moratorium when it comes up for renewal next year because of concern about power shortages.

Each country in the MENA region has its own renewable energy story. The various states are now securing discernible industry niches and developing clearly differentiated strategies, as the following case studies illustrate. Egypt Blessed with steady, strong winds along the Gulf of Suez, the most populous Arab country has plumped for wind power to help it cut greenhouse gas emissions that have been among the fastest-growing in the world.

Egypt installed its first grid-connected wind farm in 1993. The government launched a plan in 2007 for wind power to supply 20 per cent of electricity demand by 2020. Though that target has been scaled back to 12 per cent, bigger contributions are expected from solar energy and biomass. The World Bank's Clean Technology Fund supplied US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) to boost Egypt's wind programme, mainly by co-financing a high-capacity power transmission system. The bank reported in May that Egypt was planning to increase its wind power capacity to 7,200 megawatts, from 430mw currently.

Hassan Younes, the Egyptian electricity and energy minister, recently said the country would add another 120mw by the middle of next year. Mr Younes expects Egypt to install more wind farms than solar projects in the early years of its renewable energy plan because solar power is more expensive. The country's first commercial solar development, a 140mw facility south of Cairo, is slated for completion by the end of next year.

Egypt could export power to Europe through Libya and Tunisia, which are linked to the partially completed Mediterranean Ring, extending to Morocco and Spain. Morocco With meagre oil and gas reserves, Morocco is more keenly motivated than its Maghribi neighbours to develop renewable energy and is amply endowed with sunlight, wind and low-priced desert acreage suitable for large solar arrays and wind farms. In the Atlas Mountains, which intercept moisture-laden winds from the Atlantic, it also has significant hydroelectric potential.

However, Morocco's biggest power plants burn coal and the country imports 97 per cent of its total fuel supply. The government is determined to change that while at the same time making the kingdom a major energy exporter. It is the only North African country linked to Europe's electricity grid through a high-capacity undersea transmission line. The state-owned Office National de l'Electricite announced a $3.4bn energy development plan in 2004, including a provision to increase the share of renewable energy to 10 per cent by 2011 from almost nothing. Mohamed Zniber, the Moroccan energy minister, has said the country aims for an 18 per cent increase its renewable energy output by 2012.

Morocco announced a $9bn solar project last month which officials said would allow solar, wind and hydroelectric power to provide 38 per cent of the country's electricity by 2020. The proposed solar plants would account for 2,000mw of generating capacity. The project, to be funded by state and private investors, would use large-scale concentrating solar technology developed in the US. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, was among officials attending the project's launch ceremony in the southern Moroccan city of Ouarzazate.

Not to be outdone, Germany said last month it would help Morocco develop solar-powered electricity generation and water desalination. A group of German companies including the reinsurer Munich Re, the engineering conglomerate Siemens and the utility RWE in July launched the Desertec joint venture, which aims to supply 15 per cent of Europe's power needs with electricity from renewable energy projects in the MENA region. Morocco has expressed enthusiasm for the export project.

Saudi Arabia The Saudi oil minister, Ali al Naimi, drew the anger of climate change activists earlier this year when he warned that a switch to renewable resources, if enacted too quickly, could produce a "nightmare scenario" for global energy supply and pricing. That is not to say that the world's biggest oil producer has turned its back on the huge potential for solar power development in its sunny backyard.

Mr al Naimi said in September that research at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) to advance renewable energy development could enable the kingdom to become a substantial exporter of clean electricity. It may also cut emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants from a power sector primarily fuelled by oil. "Saudi Arabia aspires to export as much solar energy in the future as it exports oil now," he said.

So far, the kingdom has not announced solar projects on the scale of Morocco's initiative, or even equalling the $400m Shams 1 solar plant being built in the UAE. Numerous small projects are planned or under development, including a 2mw photovoltaic array at KAUST. First Energy Bank of Bahrain last month announced a plan to build a $1bn polysilicon plant in Saudi Arabia with the Saudi industrial group Project Management and Development. The programme is aimed at supplying the expanding regional solar power market. Riyadh has agreed to finance part of the development, which would produce a key material used to make solar panels.

UAE The renewable energy programme in the Emirates has made international headlines because of the $22bn Masdar City project and the political coup of winning the right to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The UN body's permanent secretariat is eventually to be located in Masdar City, which aims to be the world's first carbon-neutral, waste-free urban community. More importantly, it is an ambitious technology transfer programme.

Masdar City "will showcase the best available technologies for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions", said Batir Wardam, a Jordanian ecologist and expert on Middle East ecosystem management. That could make the UAE the Arab world's leader in localising renewable energy technology. Masdar, the company, is already investing in solar panel manufacturing plants in Germany and the UAE. It is also in partnerships to develop the UAE's first utility-scale solar power plant and clean energy projects including an integrated hydrogen power facility and a carbon capture and storage development. The solar project involves a modular design that could be expanded from an initial 100mw (Shams 1) to as much as 2,000mw over several years.

The UAE has set a target of supplying 7 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The Government expects most of that to come from solar power. @Email:tcarlisle@thenational.ae

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