x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UAE leads Middle East charge in a slew of solar projects

From Qatar to Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, governments are turning to solar power as cheaper installation costs, higher oil prices and rising energy demand make it a far more attractive investment.

From Qatar to Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, governments are turning to solar power as cheaper installation costs, higher oil prices and rising energy demand make it a far more attractive investment.

The UAE has led the way in the Middle East, completing Shams 1 as many projects in neighbouring countries remain in their early stages.

"It is quite clear the inspiration for much of what we're seeing in renewable energy in the Gulf started with the initiative of Abu Dhabi and the UAE," said Adnan Amin, director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), which is based in the UAE capital.

"It was the vision behind the creation of Masdar City and Masdar Institute and its investments provided a wake-up in the GCC that renewables were a viable option."

Shams 1, according to Robin Mills, head of consulting at Manaar Energy in Dubai, is by far the largest active project in the Gulf.

"It was launched several years ago when solar costs were quite a bit higher. It had more environmental, [energy] diversification motives," he said.

The forthcoming projects in the Gulf, when they come on stream, will offer what Mr Mills described as "a step change" in energy generation in the region.

Saudi Arabia has a US$109 billion (Dh400bn) investment programme that aims by 2030 to reach 54,000 megawatts (MW) of installed renewable energy capacity, 41,000MW of it solar. Its first large project, however, is at least two years off being in operation.

Oman is looking to open a 200MW solar farm, while Qatar, which wants 20 per cent of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2030, aims to use solar power for the highly energy-intensive activity of desalinating water.

With the GCC's energy consumption growing at about 8 per cent a year, governments are well aware that the more of their domestic power can come from solar, the more petrochemical reserves they will have for export.

Gulf governments' solar energy targets "create challenges … that are good not only for the Gulf region but for the entire planet", according to Dr Oskar Ziemelis, director of co-operation at the Gulf Research Centre in Jeddah.

"Let us not underestimate the determination of the Gulf region," he said.

"Solar alone cannot solve the increased requirements for energy, but over the mid to longer term, solar along with other technologies and especially with increased energy awareness and conservation on all fronts, can meet energy demands."

As well as setting high targets for solar power installations, Qatar is becoming a producer of polysilicon, also known as polycrystalline silicon, the material used in solar power panels, through Qatar Solar Technologies.

A $1bn plant in Ras Laffan Industrial City will generate 8,000 tonnes of polysilicon a year, a capacity that could eventually rise to 45,000 tonnes.

"The technologies and techniques will improve, new patents will be created, costs will decrease and Qatar's ongoing research into these areas will make a substantial contribution to expanding and developing our knowledge and best practices," said Dr Khalid Al Hajri, chairman and chief executive of Qatar Solar Technologies.

"We will be developing a new industry for the region that will provide solar energy for cities, new employment opportunities, freshwater for people, crops and agriculture and that will have a positive effect on the lives of millions."

Some solar projects in the region have faced hurdles. For example, the Desertec initiative, in which solar power plants in North Africa could supply electricity to Europe using cables under the Mediterranean, has seen industrial backers pull out, while cash-strapped European governments have been reluctant to invest in it.

Nevertheless, North African countries including Algeria and Morocco are, like their Gulf counterparts, pressing ahead with their own solar projects. The likes of Jordan have shown a willingness to advance countless small-scale solar initiatives.

"The global solar market has traditionally been led by Germany and the USA, but we see a new solar future where the GCC and Mena regions emerge as global solar industry leaders," said Dr Al Hajri.

Much of this stems from the "pathbreaking" example set by the UAE and Shams 1, suggested Irena's Mr Amin.

"In the time it's been in the construction phase, we've had these big investments that have happened as a result of the inspiration of Shams 1," he said.

The UAE government has, he said, "a continuous commitment" to making renewable energy "a reality" in the region.

"They're in this for the long run, they're committed to making a success of this. This is the kind of inspiration that will really make a change in the future."