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Thu 2 Jan 2020 04:00 PM

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Shining a light on solar power

As more governments and businesses focus on sustainability, SirajPower CEO Laurent Longuet explains how his company is keeping pace with a rapidly changing industry

Shining a light on solar power

SirajPower CEO Laurent Longuet, who worked as project director on the Shams 1 joint venture solar project between Masdar and Total, back in 2010.

Laurent Longuet worked as project director on the Shams 1 joint venture solar project between Masdar and Total, back in 2010.

Looking back, he laughs as he describes, what was at the time, the biggest solar energy system in the world, as “prehistoric”.

He jests, of course. Shams 1 occupies 2.5 sq km and has a capacity of 100 megawatts (MW). The plant displaces about 175,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, which is the equivalent of planting 1.5 million trees or removing 15,000 cars from Abu Dhabi’s roads.

Prehistoric it may not be, but Longuet’s words are put into context slightly, with the opening of the AED3.2bn ($871m) Noor Abu Dhabi, at Sweihan, in July – the world’s largest single-site solar project – boasting a capacity of 1,177MW.

Providing enough capacity to cover the demand of 90,000 people, the plant features more than 3.2 million solar panels, installed across an 8 sq km site.

“Here we are talking about 12 times more (than Shams 1),” says Longuet, who is CEO of Dubai-based SirajPower, the UAE’s leading provider of solar rooftops.

“In only five or six years, the scale has changed completely.”

The same can be said for SirajPower, which was founded five years ago by Longuet with backing from Green Coast Enterprise, owned by the Abdulghaffar Hussein family in Dubai. From an initial modest staff of just a couple of workers, the company has grown with over 40 staff and a turnover this year expected to hit more than $30m.

One of the greatest challenges now for Longuet and SirajPower is to maintain this while keeping up with an ever-changing industry.

He says: “The agreements we are installing today were not in existence five years ago and probably what we will install and propose in five years’ we won’t even have heard of today.”

SirajPower currently has a portfolio of 15 large solar energy systems running on industrial roofs in Dubai. The company has secured the equivalent of 50MW of projects with another 100MW “at a very advanced stage of negotiation”, according to Longuet.

He smiles as he recalls the early days of the company, which were tough, even when Dubai approved legislation allowing the private sector to have their own source of electricity.

He says: “Solar is new to the region and is very new to industrial companies. People were interested in the philosophy and the idea stirred some interest, but they considered it more as, ‘electric cars, great, but that will be another 50 years’, instead it was, ‘solar, sounds great, but it’ll be another 20 years’. That was very much what we were facing at the time.”

He reveals that discussions with their first ever client, RSA Logistics, lasted almost 18 months before the agreement was signed. “We started with one system back in 2017, we have now covered all their buildings in Dubai and we are proposing new solutions for them to save electricity consumption and anticipate future consumption whenever they have new buildings,” he says.

Longuet describes that first deal, a 1MW system producing more than 40 percent of the electricity for the factory, as a “game changer” as he was able to show the potential of the company and the solar power it specialises in.

He says: “We were able to demonstrate on a large scale, a private company can produce its own electricity in a significant manner. That has definitely been a game changer, making many others believe they can do the same. It’s not slides, it’s not just ideas, it’s a reality.”

Longuet says it was a similar story with lenders in the region, who were initially reluctant to back solar energy schemes before big hitters such as DEWA, ADWEA and Masdar began announcing developments. “If you’re an entrepreneur, your appetite for risk is there and still it has taken us a long time to get people on board. Imagine talking to bankers, whose appetite for risk is slightly less. Banks have been hesitant to engage in this sector,” Longuet says.

One of the secrets behind their success in attracting clients and new investors is their local roots and commitment to their home city and country.

He says: “When we install solar systems it’s for 20 years and we do it with the idea that we will, for 20 years, meet the owner and the operator of the system and we are able to share this with customers. The customers we talk to, they value the fact that we are not an international company that may decide to withdraw from this market next year. We are not investors from wherever putting money here to recycle it. We are here to stay. It means a lot in terms of the way we work.”

That’s not to say Longuet won’t be taking SirajPower and its expertise to a wider audience than Dubai, where the company currently has around a one to 1.5GW share of the market.

In January this year, SirajPower expanded its operations in Abu Dhabi with the signing of the first commercial lease in the emirate, with Hepworth, a manufacturer of plastic piping solutions.

And Longuet reveals further expansion plans for the future. He says: “Abu Dhabi was the first step and that will be followed by Oman, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and then we have the plan to identify countries a bit outside of the Gulf, but in the near Middle East.

“The first market to develop was Dubai. Dubai has been at the forefront in putting in place a framework to allow private companies to have their own source of electricity. We see now that the same is being implemented in other countries. It has been set up in Oman and Saudi Arabia and we believe that other regions are going in this direction.”