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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

How making solar cells in the UAE could boost the renewable energy sector

Most cells are imported from China but manufacturing them here could boost the economy

Dubai has targetted generation of 25 per cent of its energy from clean sources by 2020. Pawan Singh / The National
Dubai has targetted generation of 25 per cent of its energy from clean sources by 2020. Pawan Singh / The National

Making solar panel cells in the UAE could boost the growing renewable energy sector.

That’s according to Zoheir Hamedi, regional programme officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Mr Hamedi said a forthcoming report from Irena assessing renewable technology manufacturing in the Arab region, including the UAE, pinpointed one area that needed boosting.

“The gap which exists … is making the cells which go onto the panels,” he told The National during Irena’s 15th council meeting in Abu Dhabi last week.

“The UAE can already make panels here but they import the solar cells from mainly China. This … is highly automated and where all Arab countries share a gap.”

Mr Hamedi said a project to make the cells in Dubai’s Jebel Ali freezone was under way and this could allow the UAE to export them across the region. “They can compete in the regional market to provide panels in Arab League countries as customs are low.”

At the Irena conference in Abu Dhabi, it was revealed that jobs in the renewable energy industry worldwide hit 10.3 million last year — a 5.3 per cent increase on 2016. Irena estimates that jobs in renewables in Middle East, North Africa and Turkey stand at about 119,000. Two thirds are in Turkey, while Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia account for about 30,000 jobs. Firm data for the UAE and Saudi Arabia is not yet available. But the UAE is moving towards potentially creating up to 100,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector by 2030. And it aims to get 44 per cent of power from renewables and nuclear by 2050.

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“In Dubai, studies show it’s cheaper to produce electricity from renewables than importing gas. Policy makers in the UAE are aware of that. That’s why we’ve seen targets for UAE jump so quickly,” said Mr Hamedi, who is from Algeria.

The region is embracing renewables for different reasons. For exporters such as the UAE, domestic consumption is rising and renewables allow the country to preserve enough oil resources to export to international markets. For importers such as Jordan, where 97 per cent of oil and gas is brought in from abroad, they need to develop renewables to reduce this, ease the financial burden and free money for development.

But the UAE is also embracing renewables to diversify the economy, create jobs and boost other sectors. “They are looking at renewables from the window of social and economic benefit,” said Mr Hamedi, who has visited the Mohammed bin Rashid solar park in Dubai. But moves in the renewable direction started early such as the establishment of Masdar in 2006. “The leading country in the perspective has been the UAE since the very beginning.

“The UAE is doing very good in that perspective but if there is one thing to work on – it’s capacity building to include more and more Emiratis into the sector.”

The two-day Irena meeting ended on Wednesday and was attended by delegations from across the globe including Germany, Ireland, Jordan, UAE, Turkey and China on ways to boost renewables. A spokesperson for the Irish delegation said membership of Irena was important because it provided practical advice and support.

"Membership provides improved access for Ireland to data and expertise which complements EU and IEA (International Energy Agency) research, analysis and support in relation to renewable energy technology and policy developments," the spokesperson said.

Mr Hamedi, meanwhile, also commented on the growing public awareness in the UAE about of the importance of recycling.

“I’ve been travelling around the Arab world since my childhood. The Arab world is my area ... and the country where you see bins for plastic and paper is UAE. The industry exists,” he said.

“[Abu Dhabi] is the best location for a renewable energy organisation to be based. It sends a message to all oil-exporting countries that this is the energy of future and we should all be involved in it and all have an interest in developing.”

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