The Next Solar Development Hotbed: The Middle East And Africa?


Although the Middle East and Africa (MEA) have always been sunny, several other factors are now making the MEA region a fast-growing area for solar projects. In fact, solar demand in this region is forecast to reach 1 GW this year – a 625% increase over 136 MW in 2012, according to a recent report from NPD Solarbuzz.

The report notes that the dramatic increase in PV applications across the MEA region is partly due to new funding schemes, especially in South Africa, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

‘Israel and South Africa are relatively highly developed and thus can afford to develop PV markets,’ Susanne von Aichberger, an analyst at NPD Solarbuzz, tells Solar Industry.

She adds that both countries have a strong need for power production plants. South Africa's demand is growing, with many people still lacking access to electricity. Israel, meanwhile, is eager to become independent from the import of fossil fuels, ‘due to its sub-optimal relationships with neighboring countries, and the fact that there are no power interconnections to these countries,’ von Aichberger explains.
According to the report, Saudi Arabia also shows promise and is forecast to become the region's largest PV market by 2017.

Some U.S.-based solar companies have already become aware of the potential in this region. Last year, San Diego-based Envision Solar International Inc. announced it would install its solar shaded parking arrays in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

In these countries, ‘They have an abundance of sunshine and an abundance of cash – two key ingredients to make these projects happen,’ says Desmond Wheatley, CEO of Envision Solar. ‘Also, they are looking towards the post-petrol world.’

Wheatley says Envision Solar will deploy its Solar Tree and Solar Grove arrays. Instead of building on-site, the company can ship modular components to the site for quick assembly, reducing construction time from 15 weeks to five days.

‘It's a highly exportable product,’ Wheatley says. ‘Everything that you need comes packed on a truck or container. You don't need to have teams of people on the ground.’

One thing they do need during their activities in the MEA region is a partner. ‘You are not going to be successful by going over there and visiting,’ Wheatley says. ‘You have to have a partner who is visible and well known and has projects there.’ Envision Solar signed an agreement with Aconfort, a solar energy company that is based in the UAE and Spain. Wheatley says construction will likely begin within a year.

PV and CSP
Several MEA countries have in place programs that encourage solar project construction. In Saudi Arabia, a royal order established the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A. CARE). The initiative is designed to bring nuclear and renewable energy to Saudi Arabia's energy mix, including a goal of 16 GW of photovoltaic power and 25 GW of concentrating solar power (CSP), by 2032.

Arvada, Colo.-based SkyFuel Inc. predicts that the initiative will bring about demand for CSP. ‘We do believe K.A. CARE is going to be big, huge or enormous,’ says Eric Frazier, business development manager for the Middle East and North Africa region for SkyFuel.

The company is currently searching for a local partner to form a joint venture and begin manufacturing SkyTrough parabolic trough collectors. K.A. CARE will launch its first round of procurements soon, Frazier says, and he is optimistic SkyFuel can begin manufacturing quickly.

Working in Saudi Arabia does present challenges, he adds. In addition to cultural differences that U.S. companies may find challenging, the country also has certain requirements for hiring Saudis. ‘There are no CSP projects in Saudi Arabia today, so how do you find staff with experience?’ Frazier says, explaining that such experienced personnel do not currently exist in the region.

Activity is also buzzing in Israel, reports Craig Borkowski, global marketing director, electronics, for Albany, N.Y.-based Momentive Performance Materials.

‘Recently, there have been projects approved or in the works for more than 300 MW, which would double the size of the current capacity,’ he says. ‘Regardless of actual installations in Israel, there are many solar companies and start-ups innovating higher efficiency panels and collection techniques, which is important from a materials specification perspective.’

Borkowski adds that South Africa, meanwhile, has announced plans to generate more than 3.7 GW of power from renewable sources by 2016, with 1.4 GW, or almost 40%, projected to come from photovoltaics.

‘From a near-term look, this makes South Africa's installation base one of the strongest in the MEA region,’ he says.

In the MEA region, high levels of heat and sand can be a challenge, so the right materials can help installations withstand the elements. Momentive Performance Materials' SilTRUST line of silicones is one such material specifically designed for such environments, Borkowski says.

Solarbuzz's von Aichberger also points to additional challenges in the region, such as corruption, crime, language barriers and political instability.

Still, PV contributions from the MEA region are poised for rapid growth, and the region is expected to account for 6% of global PV demand by 2017, according to NPD Solarbuzz's report. In addition to the continued decreases in PV installation prices, the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan may also prompt leaders in this region to reconsider some of their plans for nuclear power, von Aichberger notes.

Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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