Solar Investment Summit – Middle East 2011: PV is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must

Questions such as how will modules perform in the intensely hot and dusty desert conditions, how to integrate solar energy into the grid, and can money be made from solar, were posed. “Today all the right people are in the room to answer these questions,” he assured the audience. Over 120 attendees registered for the event held on 26 and 27 October in Dubai.

Yaseen Alharbi, from King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Saudi Arabia and the other keynote speaker gave an overview of Saudi Arabia’s solar and PV initiatives, and the relationship between oil and solar, where the latter can play a role in providing energy for oil and gas refining and other industrial processes.

Saudi Aramco has played a central role in initiating solar projects. Most recent announcements by the petrochemicals company include a 3.5 MW PV project that will provide power for the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) currently under construction near Riyadh.

Further vertically integrated PV projects are in the pipeline. KACST is involved in bringing solar projects to fruition and is identifying opportunities for solar as part of wider energy and industrial applications, including a solar hydrogen production plant and a solar desalination plant, which consume significant amounts of energy.

According to Nicolai Dobrott from Apricum in Germany, Saudi Arabia has the biggest solar potential in the region – he indicated a 3.5GW market by 2015 – followed by UAE. Saudi Arabia is expected to unveil a renewable energy law before the end of the year, which should provide clarity on how the Kingdom intends to incorporate solar into the country’s energy mix.

First Solar’s Karim Asali made the case in his presentation that ‘PV is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must.’ Many countries in the region, Saudi Arabia included require additional energy capacity to meet the demands of growing population demographics. He made the case for examining the economics of PV on an LCOE basis where it is close to being competitive with fossil fuel-fired power plants. His assertion was echoed by Dobrott, who said that factors, including the continued fall in pricing of PV systems by eight to 10 percent annually over the next decade, mean PV electricity will competitive to diesel power generation in many parts of the world soon.

Asali also pointed out additional values and advantage of solar that make investment decisions more attractive. These advantages include shorter project development cycles (fossil fuel power plant takes four to five years while solar PV takes half this time), lower infrastructure requirements as no gas pipelines need building, no maintenance costs and lower carbon emissions.

Daniel Gudopp, from Deutsche ECO in Germany, identified what is needed to initiate the transition to solar energy in the Middle East, including transparency, predictability and consistency of actions, raising public awareness, designing policy based on availability of resources, strong regulatory support and analysis of module performance and dissemination of results. The company is currently part of a PV module monitoring project in Oman testing temperature, current and voltage curves and the impact of dust, heat, humidity and other conditions.

Berthold Breid, Renewable Energy Academy, discussed skills and training issues in the PV industry. For many countries, solar and the wider renewable energy industry can provide new jobs and employment opportunities. He broke down the challenge of developing a skilled PV workforce into manageable chunks, such as up-skilling electricians to carry out installations in the short term to integrating PV into engineering syllabuses, and the importance of enhancing the knowledge of and expertise of law, insurance and finance in matters relating to solar energy.

The afternoon sessions focused on strengths and advantages of different solar energy technologies in the Middle East, manufacturing issues and opportunities and risks in diversifying into polysilicon production. Earlier in the day Dobrott referred to the number polysilicon plants being planned in the region. He referred to a few, including QSTec’s planned plant in Qatar, as having strong prospects while others would be unlikely to materialise.

PV manufacturers in the region such as Microsol International are learning lessons from other more established global players that have run into difficulties as a result of growing too quickly and now faced with a downturn in demand.