Tracking the region's move towards sustainable energy
With a market of more than a few hundred trillion dollars, the energy market is complex, to say the least. It employs millions of people, supports most industries, and supports economic growth. Global warming, climate change and pollution are just a few of the top reasons why there is an international push towards renewable energy sources. However, even though the technology to harness power from natural sources has existed since more than a few decades, it is only recently that it has advanced to the level where it is viable to depend on it to produce electricity for consumption.
So, where do we stand today? The good news is that production of sustainable energy has increased significantly, and the cost of production has reduced considerably as well. With the drop in cost of production, the applications of clean energy have become more prominent.
The not so good news is that investments in clean energy are dropping. The Economist reported a 60% fall in Chinese investment in renewable energy. Despite combined efforts by some of the largest nations across the worlds to go green, we still have a long way to go till we reach optimal levels of ‘green vs. black’.
Charting progress in renewable energy across the GCC
Closer to home, in the GCC, sustainable energy has been on the agenda and part of the long-term vision of several GCC countries, with the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia leading the way.
As per UAE Energy Strategy 2050, 44 per cent of power generation within the next 31 years is to come from clean energy. Of the rest, 38 is planned to come from gas, 12 from clean coal and 6 from nuclear power. In Dubai, these objectives are even more ambitious. The Dubai Integrated Energy Strategy (DIES) aims to achieve 7 per cent of Dubai’s energy needs from clean energy sources by 2020, 25 per cent by 2030 and 75 per cent by 2050.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has seen it set a target to set-up facilities with a capacity of 58.7GW of renewable energy in the next decade.
Comparing that to statistics today, 25 per cent of the world’s electricity comes from renewable sources of energy. In the UAE, this figure is estimated to be around 2% as of early 2019. This number is likely to change following the commencement of commercial operation of the world’s largest solar project, “Noor” in Abu Dhabi, which has a capacity of 1,177MW.
While he was still in office earlier this year, Adnan Z. Amin, the now ex-director general of IRENA, who served two terms at the International Renewable Energy Agency, said that the UAE could generate 100 per cent of its power within 50 years.
Seeing the actions taken to this extent, which include Noor, 200MW project in Umm Al Quwain, Phase 3 and Phase 4 of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai — expected to be the largest single-site solar park in the world — this could very well be the case.
Oman too is upping its clean energy game. They began generating electricity from their first offshore wind plant — 50MW Dhofar Wind Farm — which is also the region’s first utility-scale wind farm.
As per a new report published by IRENA, GCC countries are expected to install almost 7 gigawatts (GW) of new power generation capacity from renewable energy sources by early 2020s.
UAE at the forefront of renewable energy
The 24th World Energy Congress which recently concluded in Abu Dhabi is the first to be hosted in the Gulf region and is an indication of the efforts of the UAE’s leadership to promote a dialogue on renewable energy. Industry leaders from around the world flew down to attend the event, discussed challenges and signed MoUs during the three-day event.
Asserting a clear vision for the future, Awaidha Mushed Al Marar, Chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Energy, said: “[The global energy industry is] undergoing change at an unprecedented speed. We stand at a crossroads today, one that makes the transition to renewables and clean energy imperative to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the tenets of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.”
Moreover, the government has also set ambitious targets moving forward. According to data from export.gov, the renewables sector is projected to increase its share of overall power generation in the UAE from 0.9 per cent in 2018 to 3.4 per cent in 2019 and 6.9 per cent in 2028. It is also expected that investments in the energy sector will become a priority in the region and are expected to reach $109 billion in the coming 5 years, as per the MENA Power Industry Outlook 2019 Report.
Despite significant achievements in sustainable energy, there are still challenges that need to be addressed. For instance, most of the solar energy is captured through the still-relatively-expensive equipment that is heavy and needs maintenance. Moreover, the way they work is by amplifying and directing the energy absorbed and generated by each cell.
Technology to solve this challenge is already available, but adoption will take time. Dr. Ross Hatton, Associate professor of physical chemistry at the University of Warwick, who is conducting research into developing organic solar cells that convert light directly into electricity using semiconducting materials. These are thin-film technologies that are produced without any toxic materials, with carbon-based molecules instead of silicon.
Furthermore, this technology could remove the need for mechanical parts, emissions and fuel — making electricity production so cost-effective and green that the cells could generate back the power needed to make them in about a week, compared to the solar panels used today that take a year to break even the energy used in producing them.
"These new solar cells could be available in the next few years. We are at a turning point. Renewable energy gives us an opportunity to make a difference and do something really meaningful," points out Dr. Ross Hatton.
So, while it is great that the governments are building these massive solar projects, we are also keen on understanding how capable these solar plants are to adapt to technology advancement.
Power up: how SMEs can contribute to the movement
SMEs can partake in the sustainable energy movement by investing in technologies and equipment that create a ‘clean’ value-chain from the very get-go. Also with production ramping up, SMEs can choose what type of energy suits their requirements – and interests – best while they are still scaling up.
The energy sector is being pushed by researchers, SMEs, established firms, and even tech startups like Yellow Door Energy, who are considering helping the Gulf reach its aim of switching over to green energy sources. The conundrum is complex as millions of jobs are currently dependent on the oil sector. Overhauling this will take a generational shift and re-training of people — but more importantly, it will take a monumental effort in shifting the political stance of countries across the region and the world to create a momentum that will see a strong and fast push towards clean energy. This is the need of the hour.