Renewed hope

Renewable energy technology has already cropped up in projects throughout the Middle East but only sporadically, ARCHITECT reports on the current market for these technologies and the impact of lackadaisical green building legislation.
Renewed hope
Abu Dhabi is being hailed as the “epicentre of solar technology” by industry experts.
By Peter Ward and Jeff Roberts
Sat 04 Apr 2009 04:00 AM

Renewable energy technology has already cropped up in projects throughout the Middle East but only sporadically, ARCHITECT reports on the current market for these technologies and the impact of lackadaisical green building legislation.

Despite the global recession, green buildings are still being seen as a long-term investment for many of the region’s developers, consultants, contractors and architects.

To that end, one of the ways to achieve a sustainable project is to parlay the region’s ample renewable resources – i.e. sun, wind, hydro and waves – into viable forms of energy.

Who is in charge of pushing solar technology policy in the UAE? Is it the Emirates Green Building Council, Dubai Municipality or the private sector? Why is it so difficult to get a straight answer? - Hisham El Shaarani

While there are several technologies available for the built environment, due to the climate in the Middle East, the most logical and ample resource is solar.

Be that as it may, solar technologies come with a formidable list of challenges. Yet, experts remain optimistic.

Nick Lander, regional head of sustainability for Atkins, recently commented on the current use of renewable technology in the Middle East: “Renewables are usually a last resort in green design but we are seeing increased use across the Gulf.”

Among the examples he cites are the PV panels lining the entrance to Knowledge Village and the solar light tower behind Media City – both in Dubai. Moreover, the ubiquitous Bahrain World Trade Center has become a veritable icon of renewable energy in architecture, despite the specific challenges it faces. “Solar hot water and PVs are being used for remote systems like marine navigation lights and parking meters,” adds Lander.

According to Heath Andersen, director of sustainability for Ramboll Whitby & Bird, the use of renewable energy in the Middle East is increasing. “I think there is more of a focus on renewable energy; it’s a combination of things, people are realising that there is so much to be done here and it is an energy resource we should be harnessing more. I think they are doing that a little bit off their own back and the authorities are also driving it a little bit.”

One of the challenges facing the development of renewables is that developers and owners have to wait to see a return on their investment. Andersen explains: “We do a lot of projects for developers who pass the properties on, so getting them to engage in operational costs is still a bit of a challenge. Sometimes because they are going to develop and then get rid of [the building] they are not too worried about the operational costs over ten years.”

Legislative incentives

At a recent BIPV seminar sponsored by Scheuten Solar, Hisham El Shaarani, a young engineer and PV installer in the audience, asked a simple question: “Who is in charge of pushing solar technology policy in the UAE? Is it the Emirates Green Building Council, Dubai Municipality or the private sector? Why is it so difficult to get a straight answer?” The question would not have been so poignant had its answer not evaded so many on the expert panel.As Ali Bin Towaih, current chairman of the EGBC and director of ENPARK – a “model sustainable community designed to showcase the communal viability of clean technologies” – tried in vain to justify why the private sector should take on the responsibility of putting together a collective proposal on renewable energy technology for Dubai Municipality, two questions immediately arose: Why is the private sector being asked to drive public policy? Why does the chairman of the EGBC seem so willing to eschew the very responsibility his position bestows on him?

According to Lander, new legislation and guidelines – i.e. Estidama in Abu Dhabi or Mandatory Progression in Dubai – have gone a long way to promote the use of renewable technology.

“The new rules are a step in the right direction for sustainable design in general and they will encourage designers to stretch themselves to come up with more elegant solutions,” he explains.

The main reason [to be wary] is that solar power is the most expensive form of power and we don’t see many policies coming up to promote private investment into these projects to make the sector more attractive. - Hemanth Nayak

Free-zone building legislation, such as that in Dubai’s JAFZA, has been praised by Andersen for requiring developers to abide by LEED requirements plus an additional and 2.5%.

He also says that the guidelines are the main reason owners are installing the green technologies: “There are some clients taking it up off their own back and doing it because they think it’s a good idea but the green building regulations definitely are the biggest driver.”

Murat Aydemir, general manager of Viessmann, is also quick to praise the importance of green building legislation in the region: “I think the regulations are very good to make people aware of what they should do and I think they are good guidelines to improve a building’s green technology. It is a starting point – it’s not the end – it’s just a starting point.”

While some in the industry are excited about future regulations for green buildings, which will inevitably offer additional credits for innovative solutions and new technologies (i.e. renewable technologies), the warm fuzzies are not industry-wide.

According to Mario Seneviratne, director of Green Technologies and secretary to the board of the EGBC, LEED assessments cannot fully motivate developers to use the technology: “If you take a subject like LEED, why would you go and spend a couple of million dirhams to get one point under ‘Renewables’ when you could use it and get two points under something else? There is a carrot but I don’t think it is a big enough carrot to make people go in that direction solely.”

Energy options

While several types of renewable energy exist in the Gulf – namely sun, wind, hydro, nuclear and waves – solar energy is, by far, the most popular form. The two major technologies that utilise the power of the sun are PVs and solar thermal – which includes thermal cooling.

“There is a big interest in PV and solar electrical production. But the investment is quite high and the payback is still quite long so this technology needs some time until the payback period of photovoltaic gets shorter,” explains Aydemir “I think solar thermal has a big future. Solar thermal is a technology that is used worldwide and it is strange that in the Middle East, up till now, the use of solar thermal has not been too widespread.”However, Seneviratne believes that integrated solar thermal applications are increasing and that long payback period so often attached to green technologies is becoming less of an issue.

“Recently I was at a conference and I was pleased to see numerous projects that have been done with renewable technologies. Most of them appeared to be solar thermal which we all know has a fairly short payback period,” says Seneviratne.

In one of the world’s largest and most anticipated applications – Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City – the municipal solar energy plant, which was due to go live some time in March 2009, will be ultimately responsible for powering Masdar City’s university.

If you take a subject like LEED, why would you go and spend a couple of million dirhams to get one point under ‘Renewables’ when you could use it and get two points under something else? There is a carrot but I don’t think it is a big enough carrot to make people go in that direction solely. – Mario Seneviratne

Its 87,777 solar modules contain two different types of PV panel – thin film and polycrystalline silicon – and has the potential to generate up to 10MW of renewable energy.

“Abu Dhabi is the epicentre of solar power right now,” says Sami Khoreibi, president and CEO of Environmena Power Systems, an Abu Dhabi-based solar systems integrator. “Saudi Arabia has also recently announced a 2MW plant, but I think we’ll see a much wider roll out there too. Countries that are comfortable with conventional energy seem to be able to transfer that comfort to renewables.”

Meanwhile, Atkins’ team of sustainability experts is one of the region’s leading groups of researchers looking into renewable technologies. According to Lander, they’ve constructed a solar panel test rig to measure a variety of climatic factors including extreme temperatures, humidity, dust collection and wind speeds – none of which can be simultaneously assembled via practical lab tests or theoretical satellite readings.

While the few practical applications and continued research into new technology is encouraging, some in the industry remain unconvinced. Questions about up-front capital investment, MENA compatibility and legislative diffidence remain at the crux of the debate.

“The main reason [to be wary] is that solar power is the most expensive form of power and we don’t see many policies coming up to promote private investment into these projects to make the sector more attractive,” says Hemanth Nayak, senior research analyst, Energy/Power Systems, South Asia & Middle East, at Frost & Sullivan. “Once new policies do come up in the future, there’s likely to be a lot of developments in this sector.”

The final word

Rises in the price of electricity across the region could very well boost the renewable technology market as alternative energy becomes more financially viable. But regardless, there can be no doubt that green building and sustainable methods of construction will feature heavily in the future.

The role of renewable energy within this time frame is less clear, yet there are a number of factors – including a massive amount of government investment – that suggest renewable energy may be the way of the future in the Middle East, whether it makes sense or not.

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