Renewable energy in the Middle East and North Africa

Summary: the region is a good one for solar and wind energy. Wide recognition of the possibilities, but action is patchy and mostly disappointing.

In our posting of 2 December 2015, on the occasion of the opening of the giant solar thermal plant on the edge of the Moroccan Sahara at Ouarzazate, we described the extraordinarily low level of renewable energy production in the Middle East and North Africa and forecast rapid change.

There are a number of reasons why the region should invest in renewable energy despite its huge hydrocarbon resources (in addition to reasons which apply globally, such as protecting the environment, and rapidly falling costs). There is ample solar energy and in many places wind energy to be harvested, and land available for construction (solar and wind production needs a lot of space). The hydrocarbon resources are unevenly distributed, so there are have not nations as well as haves. Growing populations and a radically different lifestyle means a colossal increase in the demand for water, which cannot be met from conventional sources; quite apart from the need for desalination, according to the World Resources Institute top countries to benefit from water-saving by switching to solar electricity generation from fossil fuels include Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, the UAE and Jordan. Even the have nations are using so much energy internally that it is interfering with their exports (and sometimes risking political complications, e.g. UAE and Moroccan import of gas from Qatar and Algeria respectively). Finally of course hydrocarbons are non-renewable, and oil-rich countries face the prospect of running out – in the fairly distant future for some such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but all too soon in others such as Algeria and Oman.

There is certainly increased interest in the region, and readiness to talk the talk. Last December, one example among many, the Kuwaiti minister for oil, electricity and water said Kuwait was determined to produce 15% of its power from renewable energy by 2030, beginning with the Dibdibah solar power plant which will initially generate 1,500 MW 500. A 4 May article in the Saudi Arab News makes the case for investment in renewables in the GCC countries. This month the Arab Forum for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency held its fourth biennial meeting in Kuwait.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (based in Abu Dhabi) renewables have a key role in the region, with ripple effect on economic growth and diversification, job creation and an improved balance of trade as well as on water security. But “Despite strong resource potential throughout the region, as of 2015, nearly 80 percent of non-hydro renewable energy growth was concentrated in only four of the 22 Member States, with renewables constituting only six percent of total installed power generation capacity.” The report goes on to quote encouraging new developments in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Morocco

A May report from APICORP Monthly Energy Commentary – Renewables in the Arab world: maintaining momentum attempts a comprehensive picture of what is actually being done. The headline “Renewables in the Arab world: maintaining momentum” is cautious rather than bullish. Saudi Arabia “has finally issued its first tender after much delay” (for 300 MW of solar). The have nots as well as the UAE are accelerating development and have introduced mechanisms to encourage renewables such as competitive bidding, the introduction of feed in tariffs (FiTs), tax exemptions, and power-purchase agreements (PPA). But the haves other than the UAE have done little.

The report summarises existing and future projects in Morocco, Jordan, the UAE and Egypt, and slower progress in countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Algeria where rising demand is still being met from hydrocarbons “and policy uncertainty and lack of an efficient and supportive regulatory framework are also contributing to slow progress.” Tables give country by country renewable energy targets and major projects due to come online by 2020.

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