Solar energy: Is it the answer to the Middle East’s energy needs?

Solar energy: Is it the answer to the Middle East’s energy needs?

October 10, 2010 at 09:10am

Every hour, the sun emits more energy onto the earth than the entire population uses in one year. The amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth on a daily basis is more than 200,000 times the total electricity that mankind generates.

A report by Greenpeace, the European Solar Thermal Power Industry Association and the International Energy Agency’s SolarPACES programme, says that by 2025 the solar energy industry will attract almost US$20 billion a year in investment, employ over 50,000 people, and would have avoided the emission of 362 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

In that context, the high volume of sunlight that the Middle East receives, makes it a natural contender to lead the world’s solar energy industry — why then has it not yet happened? Could the proper harnessing of solar energy in the region be the answer to the foreseen dearth of oil as a major source of energy?

Wide-scale deployment of solar energy faces a number of challenges today. Among these challenges are: a) high investment cost of technology, b) large foot print due to low efficiency in comparison to conventional power generation, c) lack of government incentive, and d) limited understanding among policymakers and other stakeholders.

Tackling these fundamental issues and solar energy could certainly be a viable source of alternative energy for the masses, both regionally and globally. Some European countries have already been evaluating multi-billion dollar proposals that would create vast solar thermal and photovoltaic displays in various parts of the Sahara Desert in North Africa, and then provide the generated electricity to meet a substantial amount of Europe’s energy needs – the Desertec project being one example. Further on, by 2040 it has been estimated that solar thermal power plants could supply five per cent of global electricity demand.

It’s not that the region hasn’t started working on harnessing and commercializing solar energy: Saudi Arabia has begun building the first solar-powered water desalination plant which is step one in a three-part program to introduce solar energy into the Kingdom. The country is planning to make solar power a major contributor to energy supply in the next five-10 years.

Masdar in Abu Dhabi has a 10MW PV solar plant that is connected to the grid and already operational. Construction of a 100MW CSP plant will start in the near future in Masdar , which will make it the largest parabolic trough power station in the world. Also, the World Bank is providing Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria access to benefit from a $5.5 billion solar projects fund. The projects’ combined electricity generation capacity of 9,000 megawatts would nearly equal the total installed power capacity of Abu Dhabi.

“The ME region has a great potential for large-scale deployment of renewables, especially solar energy. However, the cost of the technology today puts it in an unfavorable position in comparison to conventional power generation. The high levels of subsidies fossil-fueled power generation enjoys in the region necessitates that governments provide some level of subsidies to support solar in order to level the playing field for this technology. Once this happens, will see the market opting for solar as an economically viable power generation option,” says Sami Kamel, General Manager, Marketing, GE Energy. “All in all, the ability to cost effectively convert “free” sunlight to energy is what will make solar power more affordable in the future.”

Join the conversation: If solar energy can be channelled more cost effectively, it may just be one of the key solutions to meet the region’s energy needs, don’t you think? Tell us what you think here. You can also follow us on Twitter (www.twitter.com/ge_hewar) and share your thoughts there!

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