Face-to-face with Ahmed Al-Kadi
While oil is the energy source of choice in the Middle East, Kim Kemp finds that enthusiasm plus solar power has an energy all of its own
Ammar Al-Kadi, CEO, Al Hamad Engineering, a member of Ghorfa, Arab-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has passed his passion for renewable energy down to his son.
Four years ago, Ahmed Al-Kadi, head of the recently formed renewable division AK Solar, within Al Hamad Engineering, made his first foray into the renewable energy sector “on a trial and error basis” he says, deprecatingly.
The younger Al-Kadi is fervent about all things solar and underwent certification training within the renewable energy sector to complement his mechanical engineering qualification.
“We started a separate solar division, named AK Solar, which ran under the mother company, Al Hamad Engineering and then broke away 18 months ago as a separate entity. We still co-share the engineering staff, equipment and back-office but the company is separate, and I handle the huge Saudi Arabian client base.
“I have a passion for everything I do,” Al-Kadi says candidly, “Everything in life I try to do with full efficiency and to realise the full potential.” And this energy went into solving a challenge right on his doorstep. With the associated expenses around accommodating a huge labour force working on the construction projects awarded to Al Hamad, he explains that it became a company goal to reduce costs.
“The fuel demand from the labour camp was excessive, so we started looking at renewable energy sources to off-set this expense.” He explored various renewable alternatives, including thermal energy, wind and solar.
With a smile, Al-Kadi recounts: “One of my colleagues said: ‘God smiled on us twice; He gave us the oil below and the sun above’; blessing us from above and below. However, while we already had oil, we wanted an alternative to this energy resource, and so we looked to the sun,” he adds.
Solar power is somewhat new in the Middle East, with the result that information and knowledge around it is relatively untapped, so in his new capacity, Al-Kadi attended renewable energy conferences and seminars, equipped with an insatiable thirst to inform himself about this resource. Kristian Wallgren, business development manager of Al Hamad engineering adds: “We discovered that the potential here in the Middle East is huge and we decided to put our [new found] knowledge to good use.”
With this end in mind, by installing solar panels on the roofs of the workers’ accommodation, the company’s labour camp was transformed into the ideal pilot project for solar energy.
The existing staff accommodation consists of 20 to 25 independent portable cabins. Al-Kadi explains that each cabin serves as a stand-alone unit, so the company kitted the roof of one entire unit with solar panels to see how best they could harness the sun’s energy.
“We needed to see how a solar system would work,” he says and adds with pride, “It’s been working continuously for the past three and one-half years and is 100% solar powered.”
After studying the demand and consumption of each cabin – each room in the cabin consumes 5kW per hour – it transpired that a non-solar-powered cabin’s consumption amounted to 9,000kW per month.
The cabin was originally equipped with standard lights, air conditioner and water heater. While it was evident that the overall power consumption had room for improvement, he explained that the idea was to “add an energy resource, not to simply reduce consumption”.
With this approach in mind, a simple adaptation from standard lighting to LED room lighting, from running a standard air conditioner to converting to an inverted-type unit and from using a traditional water heater to installing a solar water heater, per cabin, resulted in significant savings.
Once the results were analysed, the possibility of installing solar energy throughout the accommodation complex became a viable option. “By doing this, we saved half the number of required solar panels,” he explains, “requiring 100 as opposed to 200 panels. We monitored our conventional electrical consumption (AC, light, and water heater), and replaced these with energy efficient electrical components. By doing this we reduced overall consumption per hour from 25,000 to 11,000 watts, a reduction of more than half.
“We also freed up the area needed to produce the required energy load from 334m² to 167m², allowing us the fit all the panels over the cabin rather than allocating additional space to install more panels.”
Coming from an engineering approach, he believes that this exemplifies how the company has an advantage over its peers within the renewable energy sector: “Al Hamad Engineering comes from an engineering background, and to date we have converted three accommodation allotments to solar power.”
Armed with enthusiasm but no experience in the installation arena, the company went about investigating installation methods. Al-Kadi is frank about the process: “We knew nothing of the process, so we brought in a company to assist us and they trained us how to install a solar system, comprising a system that was half from Chinese and half from German suppliers. After that we went on our own.”
Shortly thereafter, Al-Kadi went to Germany for two months to study Renewable Energy, which is provided by German Academy, in association with the Fraunhofer Institute, and it was here that his passion for renewable energy was ignited. “I already had the knowledge and installation experience, and while studying I discovered that I loved the subject matter,” he enthuses.
Al-Kadi is literally ‘hands-on’ when it comes to installing and his passion around solar power is tangible. Driven by a desire to create awareness of and to help people seek alternative energy solutions, he explains that this became a source of great pride for himself and the company that he represents: “Through projects such as the staff accommodation example, we are able to reach people from all walks of life, regardless of social standing, and if that means helping people, then that makes it all the more worthwhile – it’s all about sharing knowledge.
Solar can help people with minimum resources, specifically within some of the suburban areas like Qatar, the Gulf and internationally, where there is no electricity at all and more often than not, diesel generators are in use, which has a harmful impact on the environment and the peoples’ health,” he observes.
Unlike its wind power counterpart, where rotors are exposed to the harsh elements of wind abrasion and dust clogging the mechanisms, solar panels, by virtue of their application, don’t face the same challenges in the Middle East. Al-Kadi explains that this is a point of consideration when offering an alternate energy solution and it’s a question that he is often asked: “Dust does affect the solar panels, reducing efficiency and output power.
However, we have a number of methods to reduce this; one simple method is to angle the panel. Another is nano technology and we are presently in discussions with a company that specialises in this field. By spraying a special solution onto the panel face, it lubricates the surface, drastically increasing slipperiness, or smoothness, thereby preventing or reducing traction for dust particles.”
Wallgren points out that technology is constantly improving and AK Solar’s proposals accommodate this: “If, ten years from now the technology has become outdated, we will come in and replace the new equipment or put in the new technology. The client would then pay cost and along with that, we include a maintenance side to the proposal, as this is obviously something that is an ongoing process, given the dusty environment in which we install,” he assures.
Calculating an efficient and cost-effective solar system is dependent on the region, climatic conditions and other influencers, including dust build-up and when to clean the panels.
“In general terms, for one-square-metre you should get 1,000 watts from the sun. But in reality, we get about 200 to 300 watts. The 800 watts of losses is owing to nature, which includes influences such as extreme heat and the effects of the composition of dust particles on the solar cells,” Al-Kadi says and outlines also, that because solar radiation is not constant, levels vary. So too, the common dust haze that is prevalent in Qatar prevents maximising the sun’s rays.
Around this knowledge and based on the power output from the panels versus consumption needs, on their own pilot project, AK Solar conducted extensive experimentation as to when exactly it was most opportune to clean solar panels. “We conducted a study over the course of a year and we found that in the Middle East region, between June and September, summertime, the weather is as its most inclement, with high dust levels and the highest annual temperatures.
“With this in mind, we cleaned the panels on 1 July, and thereafter we monitored the power generated from the panels as the dust levels built up on them, to observe when there would be a complete system shutdown. Over the weeks the power output decreased incrementally as the dust increased and we eventually experienced a complete
shutdown after five weeks, when no radiation could be absorbed by the dust-covered panels.
“As a result of this research we know that generally, other than during summer, the solar panels need to be cleaned once a month,” he adds and explains that the company supplies a manual on how and when to clean the panels if clients want to undertake that task themselves or, alternatively, the service is included in a preventative maintenance programme.
“Any system we install is monitored by our staff, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to optimise power output. With on-site sensors we are able to monitor our clients’ systems off-site from our head office control room. This serves to locate and ultimately prevent any type of failure,” Al-Kadi explains.
He points out that AK’s system is vastly different to a number of solar power suppliers in the region: “A lot of foreign companies who don’t have Middle East exposure or experience, base their findings on European conditions. We initially felt that the odds of us competing against these companies was not possible as we knew a fraction of what they supposedly knew.”
However, AK Solar’s knowledge within the region has levelled the playing fields, so to speak. Wallgren comments, “Our research and experience has equipped us with an accurate understanding of how much and what exactly we need to include in our maintenance package to make it as easy, efficient and cost-effective as possible for the client. We can design the system closer to the reality, with no chance of over design and we can calculate exactly what the losses might be.”
AK Solar has also conducted research on which batteries are best suited, from German to American and Chinese suppliers. While the upfront cost of the battery might appear excessive, the longevity must be considered when off-set against pay-back period and client’s requirements. All costings are calculated up front and clearly itemised in the proposal to ensure that expectation levels are realistically met.
He explains that the weather data, used internationally as a reference for solar radiation, does not clearly depict radiation effect and solar conditions in the Middle East.
“The information shows a lot less on average than what we are actually getting here. For example, if the information indicated that 200 solar panels are required, someone in Europe might go by NASA’s number whereas, we are here literally on the ground and we might determine that only 160 panels are necessary because the sun conditions are better than depicted. The company can then design an appropriate system, closer to actual conditions. We also ensure regular cleaning and maintenance teams monitor clients’ systems on a monthly basis.”
“It’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’; we look at the total solution to maximise output,” Al-Kadi concludes.