WFES: A new realism for solar in MENA

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The prevailing PV mood from this week’s World Future Energy Summit (WFES) – held in Abu Dhabi from January 22-24 – was one of burgeoning potential in a MENA region on the cusp of political, legal and technical maturity.

The renewable energy event is the largest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and this year attracted an estimated 25,000 visitors and some 650 exhibitors. With its focus split equally between water, waste, wind and solar energy, it was a good opportunity to gauge the PV appetite when pitched against other forms of renewables.

Amid a politicized backdrop – far more political than other PV trade shows such as SNEC and Intersolar – the PV portion of the show was dominated by Chinese companies, who boasted a heavy presence throughout proceedings. Contrasted with the U.S. – whose stand was smaller than that of the U.K. and even Norway – it was evident that the MENA region was likely to be beckoned east, rather than west, at least in the near-term.

Having enjoyed numerous false dawns in the international PV spotlight in recent years, the attitude towards MENA’s PV potential at WFES was more nuanced. Visitors and exhibitors were more realistic at the immediate prospects for PV in MENA, aware that progress may indeed be slow, hampered by a lack of local know-how, intermittent political unrest across pockets of the region, and an understandable sense of wanting to do things the right way. Indeed, many visitors and exhibitors approached WFES with the perspective of market preparation, rather than an opportunity to strike deals.

In the last few years, a mass euphoria around Saudi Arabia’s PV potential developed. But now the feeling is one of allowing the country more time to create the necessary preparations in order for its PV sector to grow, including the creation of a political regulatory framework. Equally, the Emirate of Dubai has to define its legislative, financial and technical regulations in terms of feeding-in solar power to its framework, before excitement can flourish. Currently, all new solar projects in Dubai are being planned on a project-by-project basis, which naturally requires a high outlay.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco – each individual nation in the region has its own ambitions, its own timeframes, and its own way of doing business, and all start from varying technical and legal standpoints. Despite an almost blanket share of the chief resource – the abundant sunshine – no two countries in MENA are the same, meaning a country-by-country approach is essential in understanding how the PV sector is going to progress.

Eyes on Africa

Such progress has been incremental but steady, particularly in the Middle Eastern countries. However, the attendance of the President of Senegal symbolized Africa’s growing appetite for solar PV and hybrid power plants – an appetite that could be sated by the emergence of a decentralized PV network that – much like the proliferation of mobile phone networks across the continent – skips a traditional developmental step: the era of coal-fired central power plants. Standalone solar installations and hybrid power plants are highly attractive to African nations because they are simple to implement and can be locally managed.

Inspired by the mobile phone market’s fleet-footed growth, the solar industry could enjoy visible and seismic growth in many African nations in 2014. The market buildup of decentalized systems will probably be accompanied by large solar projects. Past failings related to the "charitable gifting" of unreliable solar home systems not withstanding, solar PV is a convenient, reliable and inexpensive form of power generation, which – given the chance to develop a similar sales and service structure as that enjoyed by mobile networks – could lead the way for a number of PV projects over the next few years.

Note:

Solarpraxis AG (publisher of pv magazine) has founded a Dubai-based joint venture, Solarpraxis MENA LLC. At the beginning of 2014 it reinforces with its local joint venture partner, Z One Holding, and its founder Yasser Gamil its local activities. Solarpraxis LLC will provide engineering services in the region, as well as working on strengthening the pv magazine group.

Article edited and translated by Ian Clover.