The future of solar energy in the Middle East and North Africa is uncertain. The current instability may represent a temporary deterrent for investors and result in the delay of projects, while the reality of finite energy resources and an ever-increasing population means that the shift to solar energy is more urgently needed than ever. However, the recent breakdown of political power as uprisings sweep the region may actually prove an ideal opportunity for a paradigm shift required to get things moving.
Luckily, signs of progress are already apparent, the result of gathering momentum in recent years. The Gulf nations, for example, have been blessed with an affluence that has allowed them to research and support projects in sustainability, including renewable energy.
Among them is Abu Dhabi, which was the venue for a recent meeting of experts and researchers on solar energy technologies. The Forum on Solar-Electrical Energy Systems 2020, which ran on 27 and 28 March, was conducted by the Semiconductor Research Corporation and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, and the topic of discussion was a 25 percent conversion to solar energy for Abu Dhabi by 2020.
Nearby, in Qatar, the Chairman of the National Food Security Program, Fahad al-Attiya, announced on Thursday that the program's strategy includes using solar energy to desalinize water for agricultural irrigation in an attempt to decrease the nation's reliance on imported foodstuffs, which currently runs at 90 percent.
In post-Mubarak Egypt, meanwhile, the non-profit DESERTEC Foundation is working to make the most of Egypt's sunshine abundance. Founded in 2009, DESERTEC aims to harness the solar energy of desert regions, decreasing and eventually eliminating dependence on finite oil and natural gases. The Foundation's vision sees solar energy projects stimulating local economies by creating jobs while providing a high-value energy product for export.
Hani Nokraschy, vice chairman of the supervisory board of DESERTEC, maintains that the 25 January revolution was “positive in every respect.” Since the revolution, he says, the Egyptian public is more willing to accept new ideas like solar energy. The DESERTEC concept, he explained, is an idea that can change the world by supporting a global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, 120 million of whom will be Egyptian.
Before the change of regime in Egypt, DESERTEC had contacted the former ministers and received “encouraging words” but no direct action was taken. Nokraschy confirmed that the current prime minister, Essam Sharaf, has been informed of the foundation's proposals and remains confident that regardless of the shape of the future parliament, alternative energy will find support because there is no other sustainable option.
Galal Osman, Chair of the Egyptian Wind Energy Association, has a vision of “non-grid and non-Nile Egyptians;” for him the transition to solar and wind energy must happen now. Among the pressures on Egypt that require a radical response, he cites rumors that new dams under consideration in Nile Basin countries could lead to a 15 percent decrease in Egypt's water resources. He also points to the current economic situation, with 5 million jobless graduates, and 1 million Egyptian workers recently returned from Libya.
In which case, the 25 January revolution may have come at just the right time. Osman believes that the change of regime has opened the door to a revolution in the energy sector, an opportunity to “think outside of the box and outside of the Nile Valley.”
In addition to a national initiative for 5 million roof-top solar water heaters, which produce energy equivalent to one-half of a high dam, or one giga of nuclear energy, Osman calls for the formation of a Ministry of Renewable Energy, similar to that of India. He also envisages the creation of a new local industry centered around solar and wind energy and 'green' architecture.
However, Osman is critical of Egypt's first solar plant in Kuraymat, which is backed entirely by foreign investment. The plant's opening was scheduled for February but has been delayed, and the predicted energy output is relatively small. As Osman puts it, “twenty megawatts out of 40,000 does not reflect a revolution.”
In addition to exporting solar energy to Europe, there are plans in the pipeline for DESERTEC Subsahara. Osman recently returned from a meeting in South Africa with African energy groups, where they discussed implementing the DESERTEC model, and powering the continent with energy from the Sahara and Namib Deserts.
Whether Tunisia will complete its 6-year plan for 40 solar projects, or Libya will follow through with plans to install wind turbines in the city of Derah, remains unclear at this point. But as Egypt begins to re-build in the post-Mubarak era, there seems to be a distinct possibility that alternative energy, including solar power, will incorporated into its infrastructure.