Sunny side up
Why has the region been slow to adopt solar technology?
Boosting the use of solar panels appears an obvious way for countries in the sun-drenched GCC to achieve eco-friendly goals, so why was it a slow-starter when it comes to solar? Hannah Raven reports.
With an average of almost 10 hours of sunlight every day, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries naturally lend themselves to solar energy production, but low oil and gas prices means there is little monetary incentive to switch.
But it seems the region is beginning to take stock of its notorious carbon footprint and steps are being taken to make it feasible for people to turn to the sun for their energy.
At the World Green Economy Summit (WGES) held in Dubai in April, strategies for the development of a global green economy were showcased.
The Dubai Declaration, which aims to develop the emirate as “The Capital of the Green Economy”, was signed by H.H Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, vice-chairman of Dubai Supreme Council of Energy and CEO of Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA).
Part of that includes legislation outlining procedures for private homes and companies to fit panels to generate their own electricity, the details of which are currently in the final planning stages.
And Dubai’s inaugural State of Energy Report 2014 sets out the emirate’s renewable energy plans and goals. One of these is to supply at least 1% of its energy through renewable sources by 2020, growing to 5% by 2030.
In January 2012, the 59-acre, $33.7mn phase one of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park was revealed. The photovoltaic (PV) power plant has a capacity of 13MW and has been connected to DEWA’s grid, which covers the whole of the emirate.
Once complete in 2030, the park is expected to generate 1,000MW and power 500 households per year, providing a regional base for guests to learn about solar technologies at a museum and science centre, and be home to a research and development centre.
Last month, DEWA hosted a conference for developers intent on sending proposals for phase two. The tender will close at the end of this month, with a view to the project becoming operational by 2017.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s solar installations could triple if the Emirate’s Regulation and Supervision bureau approves 28 pending licence requests for units. If authorised, they will add to the existing 14 PV systems, 11 of which were installed last year as part of a government programme.
But why has it taken so long for the region, a trailblazer in so many other respects, to harness its renewable energy potential?
Omar Hijaz, managing director of Ecotherm Middle East, an Austrian-based solar panel manufacturer and installation company, said the desert landscape means protecting nature has not always been at the forefront of the region’s mind.
“In Austria, people are much more in touch with nature; they go out walking and biking they are much more aware of it and want to protect it,” he said.
But are ethics the true reason solar has been more readily adopted in other places?
“In Austria, it pays off because oil, gas and electricity prices are very high,” he admitted. He estimated a home which installs solar panels will have its investment returned within seven years.
“In the Middle East it’s totally different. Energy is very cheap. It’s almost impossible to sell solar systems. There’s no return on investment.”
With that in mind, he thinks Middle East governments must play their role in mandating the use of renewable energy systems and highlighting the issue.
“It is straightforward to use the power of the sun as a source of energy,” explained Herbert B. Bremstaller, company founder and CEO of Ecotherm, stating that it can typically generate around 2,500W/m2, compared to just 1,000 W/m2 in Europe.
Ecotherm has provided bespoke systems for Al Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, the Shoreline Apartments at the
Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, and the King Abdullah Financial District in Saudi Arabia, amongst others. Following the recent introduction of regulations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi
requiring certain types of buildings to use solar power, he hopes solar technology will soon become mandatory.
“They [governments] should further include the use of solar power as a standard to all building projects,” he said.
“We have to use solar or we’ll collapse in the future. People need to know what could, and what most likely will, happen if we run out.”
André Simão, operations manager at AlsaSolar Systems, part of the Al Sayegh Holding Group based in Abu Dhabi, says governments should subsidise the cost of installing solar technology.
“End users will always balance their investment, therefore, specialist schemes that reduce upfront costs and at the same time give clients energy security and independence will help bring more confidence,” he said.
“Efforts to increase energy supply in the region from solar panels and collectors is sensible and it represents a paradigm in local industry.
“Why burn fossil, when we can source for almost free in the long run?” He says the attitude shift towards untapping renewable energy potential is slow, but sure.
“The market still needs to go a long way to be a reference worldwide,” he said.
“But people are starting to pay attention to efficiency – how to do more with less.”
Praveen Kumar, Middle East sales director at Germany-based Viessmann, one of Europe’s top heating companies and a manufacturer of solar thermal systems, has applaunded green building initiatives in the UAE.
“Since the authorities amended policies towards a greener environment, this has opened doors to the renewable market which is a welcome change.
“Countries like UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are at the forefront in promoting renewable energies,” he said.
“Initiatives from their government regulators are showing the direction for others to move toward.
“With many key world events being held in the near future in some GCC countries, the GCC and Middle East is earmarked for good growth for years to come.”