Qatar: Focus on solar

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Aiming to reduce both its greenhouse emissions and its use of hydrocarbons to generate power, Qatar is looking to embrace solar technology. This could lead to the development of a local industry with the potential for exports in the longer term.

On January 9 the international press reported that Qatar was looking to launch an initiative to support the development of alternative energy sources in the Gulf. The announcement was made by Mohammed bin Saleh Al Sada, the Minister of Economy and Energy, at an electricity conference in Doha. Al Sada said that Qatar would launch pilot schemes in the solar sector as part of a 200MW solar project announced last year.

The initial phase, which is due to be tendered in the coming months, will see small-scale plants generating 5MW-10MW each, installed on underutilised land. Last year the cost of this stage was estimated at $30m. Phase two will involve assessment of the initial sites, with a view to bringing in private investment to increase solar capacity.

Officials at the conference asserted the importance of boosting generation capacity in the Gulf, as well as broadening the energy mix and increasing the proportion of power generated by renewables.

Al Sada said that greater use of renewables could help reduce the use of natural gas to produce power. Qatar is one of the world’s leading gas exporters, and also has a growing petrochemicals industry and substantial desalination needs. Greater diversification of power sources would free more gas for these purposes. Currently, all the country’s electricity comes from oil- and gas-fired plants. Another reason for wishing to increase green energy output and reduce the use of hydrocarbons is environmental.

With these issues in mind, Qatar aims to generate 20% of its energy from renewables by 2024, and have 1800MW of installed green capacity by 2020. These are ambitious targets given the current generation mix, but not an unobtainable one, thanks to the financial resources at its disposal and its year-round sun, which makes it well suited for solar development.

While solar power is still a relatively expensive source – particularly compared to Qatar’s cheap and abundant gas – scientists are increasingly confident that technology will be developed over the coming years to make it more efficient and thus cost-effective.

One driving force behind renewables development in the state is Qatar Solar Technologies (QSTec), a venture between the Qatar Foundation, a semi-private non-governmental organisation backed by the royal family; Germany’s SolarWorld; and the government-owned Qatar Development Bank.

In May 2012 QSTec secured financing for a $1bn polysilicon plant in Ras Laffan City, north of Doha. The factory will have initial annual production of 8000 tonnes of polysilicon and will produce enough for photovoltaic panels generating 6.5GW when at full capacity.

A number of international companies are also involved in research and development in the solar sector in Qatar. US energy giant Chevron, best known for its hydrocarbons activities, is investing $10m in the Centre for Sustainable Energy Efficiency (CSEE) at Qatar Science & Technology Park, with another $10m coming from local clean energy firm GreenGulf.

The CSEE was inaugurated in March 2011 and aims to develop solar technology that is suited to Qatar’s climate and the specific needs of its energy users. One of the issues that Chevron aims to address is building solar panels that can perform in the hot and dusty Gulf environment. With very little rain, panels can get clogged with sand and dust, and thus absorb less sunlight. According to Chevron, their effectiveness can be reduced by as much as 40% after six months. Photovoltaics also operate less effectively in high temperatures.

As well as working on technology for power plants, the CSEE is researching the potential of harnessing solar energy for uses such as desalination and air conditioning, as well as energy efficiency measures.

Other international firms investing in solar research in Qatar include General Electric, Shell and ConocoPhillips, while the Doha campus of Texas A&M University has a project working on using solar energy to break down natural gas into carbon and hydrogen for industrial uses.

Renewables are still in their early days in Qatar, and an important caveat is that solar power is still considerably less efficient and more expensive than the state’s abundant gas. However, the country has the financial resources to invest in solar research and development and has put itself at the cutting edge of technical advances in the industry. If development continues at this pace, Qatar could become a leader in solar technology. QSTec’s potential capacity could also leave scope for export, while the work being done at CSEE and Texas A&M should, if successful, be applicable elsewhere in the region, and the world.

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