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Wed 17 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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Solar revolution

Solar power in the Middle East is not yet widespread. Utilities Middle East asks why?

Solar revolution
Sander Trestain, vice president, technical, Environmena.
Solar revolution
Frederic Conchy, president, Exosun.
Solar revolution

Solar power in the Middle East is not yet widespread. Utilities Middle East asks why?

Solar power in the Middle East shouldn't really be rocket science, there is an abundance of sun, an energy deficit and now a drive towards environmentally friendly power sources. So why is solar power not implemented on a wider scale?

"It's a good news bad news thing in the entire region. The good news is that there is an extremely good solar resource. Solar power system installed here will produce about twice as much electricity per year compared to a cloudy region such as Germany or a country like that. So it is a very substantial solar resource from which to work," explains Sander Trestain, vice president, technical at Environmena.

He adds that governments in the region are now moving towards placing very strong alternative energy policies, which will encourage the use of renewable energy in this region further, stating the government of Abu Dhabi can be seen at the forefront of this drive.  However there are also challenges to implementing power in this region.

"The bad news is that it is very early, so there are no formal feed-in tariff programmes in Middle Eastern countries, and that is the fundamental key policy required to drive solar, as you see in Germany and Japan and California," states Trestain.

It is a view echoed by many in the solar power industry. "Every region in every country, it is a regulatory market because you have a feed-in tariff. We need it here and then the system will work without any subsidiaries," comments Frederic Conchy, president, Exosun.

Exosun is a firm which designs photovoltaic plants, and is trying to break into the Middle East market. "In the Middle East we have just started and have had very good contacts with big companies here. We had a booth at WFES for the first time this year and I think we will be back here next year. So we are just starting in this region but there is a big possibility of some good business," Conchy says.

There have been few large scale solar projects in the Middle East and this is having an impact on the industry, according to Trestain. "There is very, very little installed capacity here. There are a handful of projects which we have done, a couple of smaller to midsize systems, there are a couple of systems in Saudi Arabia but you can count them on your fingers, how many solar power systems there are in the Middle East region," he reveals.

"So there is still a lot of education particularly about technology risks and people don't understand the reliability of solar and how it is a really very mature technology now and a real power solution. So those are the challenges, we are so early in the process," he adds.

The Middle East region poses a number of challenges to solar technology, most notable, and publicised, of which is how dust and sand can affect the photovoltaic panels used in collecting solar power. Conchy believes knowing the region and its climate is one of the most important factors for a company breaking into the Middle East market."When designing plants, you need a very good solution and to know the amount of kw/h you can produce in each different region. We know that regarding sand and dust there are specific problems you can have here. We need a specific product for this region, taking into account the sand and all the other factors. Sand is the main issue here though."

Trestain, on the other hand, believes that the problem of dust and sand on photovoltaic panels has been over-hyped. "For photovoltaic technology dust does not seem to be an issue at all, we have been operating a 10MW solar power plant for about half a year now so we have got a very good feel for the performance and output of it, and essentially the dust is not an issue."

"That doesn't mean the panels don't need to be cleaned, but it is a remarkably low tech solution - we use a big broom to sweep them off now and then, that's it! The frequency of cleaning ranges fairly dramatically throughout the year because there are very dusty times, when it is windy in the spring and fall, and then in the summer here it's actually not very dusty at all," he continues.

He also reveals that following these cleaning techniques has meant results have been consistent with what was projected prior to the commissioning of the system. The solar system employed by the company has been watched with much anticipation, and results don't appear to have disappointed.

"The key number which is probably of interest to everyone is the annual power output for 10MW, which is 17,500MW hours per year. That was our projection before we built it and that is what the power output is now. Any solar expert can take that number and do some very simple linear math and see what any size solar power system can put out. And it's quite impressive, literally you would see half of that energy coming out in a more northern climate," Trestain says.

As with any renewable energy technology in the Middle East, the place to be is Masdar City, and Masdar is very much a watchword among the solar power industry. "We know that Masdar is big here and we have already looked at Masdar City for business. We know that aside from Masdar there are other companies here and we know that people want to use the technology and we think we can work with them," says Conchy.

For Environmena, Masdar recently became much more than a watchword. "We closed our second round of financing recently, it was a $15m round, and the largest shareholder now being Masdar. Good Energy, which is one of the leading and largest cleantech funds in the world, based out of the UK and Zouk, another based out of the UK. There is a big consortium of fairly high influence investors, including a government entity," states Trestain.

He adds that first on the agenda for the company will be expansion, using the cash raised from the new investment. "Our aim is to spread our wings a little more in the region and establish a larger presence in the immediate Middle East countries as well as further away. So that is item one in the next few months. Item two is that we are going to be permitted to pursue some larger scale deals with these new relationships with our new investors."

The relationship with government-owned Masdar will open a number of doors for Environmena, a large amount of business in the energy sector is government to government, and the firm will now have access to these deals. The new investment will also give Environmena access to a host of new technology, which is being developed by its various investors. This kind of government led investment seems to tip the scales firmly in favour of companies which they back, leaving it tougher for break through firms to make an impact on the market.The long term aims of Exosun are slightly more modest, yet without government backing, the firm faces a tougher challenge. "For the year, we hope to find a real partner who wants to develop long term business in the region and who wants to believe in our capabilities to help them and work with them. Alone we are nothing. We have already started looking for partnerships in the Middle East and in Abu Dhabi," states Conchy.

One of the major drawbacks to solar power is that it cannot be utilised on its own. As there is no supply during the night, there must always be a secondary source of power. However, those inside the industry do not believe this should be a major problem.

"Solar by its nature is never going to be a 100% power solution and you can say that about any type of power. We will always have a portfolio of different types of power, what percentage makes sense varies from region to region," explains Trestain.

"Every day you have this curve of power production. That curve of power production almost perfectly matches the curve of energy demand from any given city or building or community. So solar power systems produces power when its needed, during the middle of the day when businesses are running and air conditioners are turned on to the max," he adds.

Solar power has the added bonus that it is producing power around midday, when energy demand is typically peaking, meaning it is there when it is most needed.

Governments in the Middle East are investing in solar power, there is no denying that fact.

But what will really drive solar power technology forward in this region, is the introduction of feed-in tarrif. The potential is there in the region, and right now a relatively minor sticking point is stopping that potential being realised. Despite this, the companies involved are keeping the faith in the power of the sun.

"My hope is to reduce the price of solar kw/h price and make it competitive with other technologies and I think the coming years we are going to see that happen, and we will have a solar revolution. It is coming.  I believe more in the future of solar than any other power," concludes Conchy.

Wide scale solar

Desertec is an initiative which was launched in July last year. The proposal involves a number of concentrating solar power systems, PV systems and wind parks being located in the Sahara Desert.

The electricity produced would then be transmitted to European and African countries through a super grid of high voltage direct current cables. Some industry members believe it has the potential to revolutionise the energy market.

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