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Q&A: Innovations Unlimited ME on solar power

Innovations Unlimited ME's Amr Belal discusses solar power.

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Amr Belal, managing partner, Innovations Unlimited ME.
Amr Belal, managing partner, Innovations Unlimited ME.

Amr Belal, managing partner at Innovations Unlimited ME, discusses the outlook for solar power in the region.

Are GCC utilities embracing solar and what proportion of power supply could realistically be provided by solar?
Undeniably, the biggest advantage of solar energy is that it is limitless. As a self-renewable, abundant resource there is simply no limit to solar power generation. The larger the solar plant gets, the more power it can produce.

Hence the proportion of power supply from solar resources depends first and foremost on the investment governments are willing to make in solar projects. With the GCC’s expansive desert and the highest solar radiation in the world, the potential is very high for solar plants implementation.

The pipeline of solar energy projects recently announced for the Gulf region goes up to $155bn; individual countries have set ambitious targets and adopted different initiatives that will help boost their solar energy production.

It is evident that governments have realized the importance of considering solar into their energy mix. With an expanding population and a power demand expected to continue growing at an average 2.5% per capita through 2035 (the World Energy Council forecasts the need for 100GW of additional power in the GCC by the end of this decade), it is very likely that solar energy production will gain a larger share of the pie.

Can solar power generation ever be done cheaply, or will it always be generated at greater cost than conventional power?
Only a couple of years ago, the cost of solar was almost twice what it is today. As deployment increased rapidly and the learnings helped R&D to improve the technologies, the cost of production has fallen at unexpected rates making these technologies increasingly economical.

According to IRENA, the decline in capital costs for solar PV may reach up to 22% with every doubling of installed capacity. This trend is likely to continue in the coming years due to a growing market size for renewables and a competitive landscape with a diversified supplier base.

In some countries like Germany, the cost of solar generated power is almost comparable to that from conventional power sources. This is particularly true when considering large-scale solar plants, which have excellent economies of scale. It is these types of solar projects that will make the most significant impact on the industry.

In the sun-rich countries of the GCC, the potential is bigger since more sunshine means more production, even though the operational costs are different with the need for regular cleaning. Still, research findings tip the scale in favor of solar energy as technically feasible and economically viable in the region. What is needed next are the right regulatory policies that will support deployment.

What are the technology choices available when building solar arrays; what are the respective pros and cons of each?
PV (photovoltaic) and CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) are the typical technologies used for building solar arrays. CSP uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat.

This thermal energy can then be used to produce electricity via a steam turbine or heat engine that drives a generator. PV panels on the other hand convert sunlight directly into electricity, producing a direct current (DC) power, which fluctuates with the sunlight’s intensity. There are several varieties of CSP systems: Linear Concentrator Systems, Dish/Engine Systems, Power Tower Systems and Thermal Storage Systems.

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Comparing technologies, a utility-scale PV plant: Takes up less space: (e.g. the required area by Utility-Scale PV plant of ground fixed type, based on Crystalline-silicon PV modules, is about 50-55% lower than the area required by a CSP plant with the same nominal power); is easier to site: PV doesn’t need flat land like CSP does, it can also be installed in sloped territory; is expandable: Unlike a CSP plant, modular utility-scale PV plant, usually constituted by several power blocks of 1MW, can be easily expanded as the demand increases; is built faster: PV plants can be built in shorter time than CSP Plants. The time required to build a 50 MWp utility-scale PV Plant is about 14 to16 months while to build a 50MWe CSP would require 24 to 36 months.

Utility-scale PV plants are not naturally suitable to supply predictable energy and to provide network ancillary services unless special control features or additional equipment (such as inverter’s frequency and voltage response capability, battery storage system, etc.) are designed and installed, with consequent increase in capital cost.

On the contrary, CSP generation is highly predictable and since any CSP plant is intrinsically coupled with thermal storage this enables the CSP plant to easily meet, the load demand curve at any time, day and first hours of nighttime, and can cover peak hours demand if they are scheduled. Furthermore CSP plants can easily participate to primary and secondary grid frequency control so that they are able to support grid exploitation both during steady state and transient condition.

CSP is generally considered more suitable for utility-scale projects (1 MW or larger), while PV is ideal for the non-utility scale projects (such as 1 MW or less). It is worth noting though that efficiencies and applicability of both technologies have yet to be determined in the Gulf region, where various metrics are being tested. This takes into consideration extreme temperatures and sandstorms as well as grid integration.

What is needed for solar to gain a significant share of power generation in the region?
There needs to be a viable solar market – to achieve that some barriers need to be overcome, namely connection to the grid. At the moment, most solar projects in the region are still independent with only a handful feeding into the national grid, mostly as pilots, making the learning very limited. This also means that incentive plans are inexistent thus decreasing the appeal of renewable energy to the private sector compared to the highly subsidized fossil generated power. Another barrier is the limited qualified workforce for installations, inspections and operations.

To bring solar energy into the mainstream, governments need to prepare for policy and market change that will allow the mitigation of these challenges. Such changes will instantly trigger investments that so far have been waiting decidedly to invest in the solar industry of the world’s most sunny region.

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