The Middle East’s new energy export: sunshine

May 3, 2013
Obsession
Energy Shocks
May 3, 2013

Last month, Mauritania flipped the switch on a 15-megawatt (MW) photovoltaic power plant. As solar power stations go, that’s small stuff. But for the west African nation of 3.4 million people, the project built by Abu Dhabi renewable energy company Masdar will supply 10% of its entire electricity demand, which is mostly served by diesel generators.

The Sheikh Zayed Solar Power Plant is the latest renewable energy export from the Middle East. Masdar has built a 6 MW wind farm in the Seychelles, owns a 20% stake in a 630 MW offshore wind project in the United Kingdom, and is building solar thermal power plants in Spain through a joint venture with Spanish engineer company Sener.

With the shale gas boom dominating energy exploration in the US, the sun-soaked petro kingdoms of the Middle East are looking to solar to ease their own oil addiction and develop a new export business. Masdar subsidiary Masdar PV, for instance, made the thin-film solar panels installed in the Mauritania project at the company’s German manufacturing plant.

“We have resources underground but above ground solar is one of key resources we have,” Bader Al Lamki, Masdar’s director of clean energy, tells Quartz.

For now, Masdar doesn’t have to go far to find potentially lucrative markets. In March, the company’s 100 MW solar power plant went online in Abu Dhabi. Developed as part of a joint venture with French energy giant Total and Spain’s Abengoa, the Shams 1 is currently the world’s largest solar thermal power plant. (Solar thermal projects deploy huge arrays mirrors to focus the sun on liquid filled boilers to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.)

Al Lamki says Masdar is now considering building a 100 MW photovoltaic power plant in Abu Dhabi as well as other solar projects that could power the United Arab Emirates’ energy-intensive desalinization plants that supply the country’s water.

But perhaps the biggest renewable energy opportunity lies just next door in the richest of the petro kingdoms. Saudi Arabia late last year said it is seeking $100 billion in investment to build enough solar power capacity to supply a third of its electricity demand.

There is no peak sunshine, but Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves are finite and the kingdom and other Middle East nations would rather sell their petroleum overseas rather than burn it at home.

Al Lamki said Masdar has been in discussions with Saudi officials and is also looking to Jordan and Morocco as potential markets for solar thermal and photovoltaic projects. While US developers such as NRG and BrightSource Energy are also targeting the Middle East as the next hot solar market, Masdar is counting on a hometown advantage.

“The awareness of the importance of renewables and how they can contribute is growing very fast,” says Al Lamki. “We have the credibility of being one of the only companies in this part of the world where we have commissioned, developed and operated renewable energy plants.”

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