Challenges and opportunities in Middle East and North African (MENA) renewable energy

Annalisa Hochstrasser

For MENA countries to achieve their renewable power generation ambitions they will need to draw on international expertise, devise supportive renewable energy policies and enhance current grid infrastructure if they are to be achieved.

Traditionally the go to region for oil and gas, Middle East and North African (MENA) nations are increasingly using their oil wealth to harness power from clean, sustainable sources. Spiralling energy consumption, falling oil prices, climate change and a genuine commitment to diversify their economies have all prompted this shift.

The region is blessed with a near perfect climate for generating solar power, which is why vast solar power plants have already been completed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UEA, Oman, Kuwait and Jordan. Many more are in the pipeline, creating opportunities for renewable energy professionals; especially as there is a shortage of qualified engineers in the region.

Energy Diversification

The region holds over half the world’s proven, recoverable crude oil and a third of its natural gas reserves.

Naturally, it has become heavily dependent on the fossil fuels which created unprecedented prosperity – Qatar has become the world’s richest country based on GDP per capita. However, these resources are finite and, for now, depreciating: a barrel of light crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange dropped from US$107.30 on 20 June 2014 to US$60.14 on 9 June 2015. This slide jeopardises MENA economies – Saudi Arabia relies on oil exports to generate 80% of its revenue - and has forced them to diversify their energy sources and economies.

Rapid population growth and industrialisation intensifies this need; especially since 99% of water in the region comes from sea water desalination – an energy devouring process. Kyoto Protocol commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have also influenced the move to renewables. Qatar, for instance, has the world’s highest CO2 emissions per capita. These factors, allied with MENA’s scorching desert climate and falling solar photovoltaic costs (they’ve dropped 80% since 2008), are fuelling massive current and future renewable energy projects.

Climatic conditions

The sun and solar power look like being the key drivers. Parts of the Middle East lie within the hallowed ‘Sun Belt’, having 30 or fewer cloudy days per year and 100mm or less of annual rainfall; perfect for generating solar electricity. Saudi Arabia is the most fortunate in this regard. The searing desert kingdom enjoys normal irradiation of 2,500 kWh/m2/year. Qatar follows closely behind. By comparison the United Kingdom can receive up to 1,100 kWh/m2/year in the height of summer.

Compelled by these motivations, MENA nations have pledged to generate more of their energy cleanly. By 2020, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia aim to get 10% of their energy from sustainable sources. The UAE has been less ambitious: planning to use renewable sources for 7% of Abu Dhabi’s and 5% of Dubai’s energy by 2030.

Jordan, meanwhile, has high potential wind energy resources, with annual average wind speeds exceeding 7m/s in some areas. It also has the region’s greatest incentive to diversify, being one of the unlucky few without its own oil and gas production.

Key challenges

Achieving these renewable power generation targets will prove a challenge for MENA countries. They will need to draw on international expertise, devise supportive renewable energy policies and regulations and enhance current grid infrastructure.

Furthermore, solar and wind power are still hamstrung by intermittency and natural gas is required to fill pauses in power output.

There’s also the issue that the primary sources of renewable energy: solar, wind, waste-to-energy and hydroelectric power will struggle to compete with oil and gas while fossil fuel subsidies endure.

However, investment is forthcoming. Billions of petrodollars have funded ‘Madsar City’. Designed by British architectural firm, Foster and Partners, the bold endeavour aims to create a carbon neutral city just outside Abu Dhabi. An 87,777-panel, 10-megawatt solar plant will power the city, while an impressive array of design features will minimise the need for air conditioning. Disappointingly, six years in, and after bold ambitions, the development is just 15% complete.

Many other Innovative projects aimed at overcoming current challenges have already been completed. Masdar itself has partnered with many organisations: for example a recent tie up with Vaisala will see the development of the UAE Wind Atlas - the first publicly available wind resource database in the Middle East.

Abu Dhabi’s Shams 1 project is among the most striking. Masdar, Total and Abengoa Solar are designing, constructing and operating the concentrated solar plant which has a whopping power output of 100 MW. The build involved a financing transaction of US$600 million: the largest in the world for a solar power project.

The Tafila Wind Farm in Jordan will generate 117 MW of power and is financed by over $220 million of investment from several international sources.

Grid infrastructure and management abilities are a big challenge because they aren’t ready to support large scale power supply from renewable sources. This restricts the scope of developments but as a late entrant to the market, the region can build on lessons learned by European forerunners when launching its own programmes.

So, while the transition will be challenging, the region’s commitment to sustainable energy projects should hold. And this will mean lucrative opportunities for skilled engineers with experience in photovoltaics and, to a lesser degree, wind power. Future projects are likely to be hotly contested in competitive procurement processes too; with energy giants seeking to cash in as MENA embraces green power.

Annalisa Hochstrasser is Team Leader, Research and Solution Design, at Procorre - a global professional services consultancy covering the energy industry.

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This article is featured in:
Energy infrastructure  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity  •  Wind power




08 July 2015
There is great scope to harness Renewables especially solar,wind,Bioenergy in the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries. I visited Jordan couple of times and could see the tremendous scope to harness Renewables there.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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