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In green investments, there is a fine line between exuberance and tragedy in The Middle East

About an hour drive from Dubai gets you to what is envisaged to become one of the largest solar farms in the world. Where the 5 gigawatt (GW) Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, a combination of concentrated solar power (CSP) and photovoltaic (PV) technologies, will be completed by 2030 and hundreds of thousands of mirrors and PV panels fill the empty desert. The expected cost is 50 billion Arab Emirates Dirham (AED) (equivalent to 13.6 billion USD), which is a fraction of the 600 billion AED (163.4 billion USD) that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will invest in diversifying its energy mix by 2050 according to Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA).

Such an impressive power plant in UEA would still look like a dwarf beside Saudi Arabia (KSA) 200 GW solar farm, which is aimed to be inaugurated by 2030. In 2018 KSA announced its plan to invest 200 billion USD in this massive project, which is also supported by SoftBank Group. Based on current technologies and in a conservative estimate, a 200 GW solar farm corresponds to an eye-popping 2000 sq km covered by PV panels. Such land requirement is nothing for the largest country in the Middle East. The real concern is how realistic this announcement is and what it aims to achieve.

KSA’s current power generation capacity is about 80GW and expected to reach 160GW by 2040. However, the 200GW solar project implies that in the next ten years, this country needs to add 2.5 times its current power generation capacity through solar power plants. Why does KSA need this amount of solar energy? And it couldn't be for exporting electricity to its neighbouring nations who also benefit from the same solar irradiation every day and are busy building their solar farms. Making sense of this plan becomes even more challenging when you compare it with clean energy projects in other countries. For instance, China with a population of 1.38 billion (42 times more than KSA), a GDP over 12 trillion USD and the highest capacity in the world for manufacturing solar farms component has decided to have one-third of its energy portfolio in solar by 2040 (about 730GW).

Even if such unusually ambitious projects become economically viable on paper, the nature of the region imposes its challenges on them. The other side of having an arid climate like the Middle East and vast, empty spaces ideal to be transformed into solar farms is frequent dust and sand storms. Those who have watched Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol film and Tom Cruise's chase scene in an intense dust storm in Dubai could imagine what it would do to shiny surfaces of solar power plants. The function of these surfaces is to receive maximum sun irradiation and either absorbing (for PV) or concentrating it (for CSP), but if the panels are covered in dust, they fail to function as expected. Dust storms frequently happen in the Middle East and maintaining the surface of solar power plants clean, in a region that suffers from water scarcity seems to be a daunting task. Even more, climate change is expected to make this problem worse; more heatwaves, less water and higher temperatures will not only make cleaning the solar plants more challenging but will reduce the efficiency of PV panels, which are affected negatively by temperature increase. Most of the manufactured panels have less output when the temperature goes above 25°C, and the generated voltage drop continues with the temperature increase.

It seems that the Middle East countries need to invest more in developing efficient PV panels, which remain effective and require no maintenance in the face of frequent and intense dust storms or prolonged heat waves, rather than insisting on having the largest solar farms on the planet. We have seen how poor planning has led to disastrous investments in the past. Masdar City, the city of the future, which is close to Abu Dhabi and an hour drive from Dubai is a prime example of such tragedies. Initiated in 2006, with an expected completion date postponed to 2025, it has already been hailed as a failed experiment in sustainable planning or the ‘world’s first green ghost town’, in contradiction to what it was supposed to achieve. Masdar was an ambitious plan based on the assumption that investing billions of dollars could create the world’s first zero-carbon city, forgetting that it is not the title that matters, it's the function that leads to sustainable progress. Now the city once thought to be a centre for showcasing clean energy possibilities is everything but a zero-carbon emission, a place once aimed to become a global hub for clean technologies and home to 50,000 residents now has a population of within few hundreds.

When it comes to green investments in the Middle East, the crucial question is what drives the appetite for clean technologies, is it the same mentality behind having the tallest buildings in the world that now has manifested itself in having the largest solar power plants? Or there is a genuine interest in transforming fossil fuel driven wealth into sustainable development infrastructures.

Dr Hamid Pouran is a member of our SCISA expert database and author of ‘Environmental Challenges in the MENA Region: The Long Road from Conflict to Cooperation’. Visit his website for more information about his work.

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