The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Egypt are leading the charge in the Middle East to adopt renewable energy sources, experts in the sector say. Whether solar, wind, or hydroelectricity, a number of countries in the region are boosting their investments in green energy, although continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels and a lack of comprehensive strategies are holding many nations back.
“Turkey and Iran (are investing the most in renewables) if you count hydropower,” says Glada Lahn, a senior research fellow in Energy, Environment and Resources at the London-based Chatham House. “We are talking about huge amounts of hydropower in Turkey (over 25GW capacity), which holds the upstream portion of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Egypt and Sudan meanwhile have the Nile.
“But the standout jumps in investment have come from Egypt and the UAE,” Lahn says. “For those countries with less riverine resources
there is solar and wind, but the capacity for these in the region is still very low compared with Europe or the United States.”
Abu Dhabi recently announced a boost in investment into clean energy, totaling some $2.2 billion, according to local news media. Awaidha Murshed Al Marar, chairman of the Emirates Department of Energy, declared that investments in the sector “will witness significant growth this year due to a number of new projects in the production of reverse osmosis water and solar electricity production.”
Future Energy Company Masdar also announced it would acquire interests in two US wind farms, marking the first time an Abu Dhabi-based company has invested in renewable energy projects in North America. Masdar also said it would launch a joint venture with Finland-based Taaleri Energia to develop green energy projects in Central and Eastern Europe.
For their part, Egyptian officials said the country intends to supply 20 percent of generated electricity from renewable sources by 2022, with wind making up the bulk.
Despite investments and government promises, several issues could hinder the actualization of these large-scale projects.
“Strong policy and a track record on stable legislation and regulation remain the key challenges,” says Lahn. “The Emirates have shown greater strategic coherence and the strength of the independent regulators in the UAE will pay off, especially when it comes to rooftop (solar panels).”
Inadequate management and ageing grids lacking proper energy storage solutions are an added problem, she says. The UAE first began investing in the renewable sector nearly a decade ago with Sham 1, a $599 million solar project featuring 768 parabolic trough collectors that have the capacity to generate 100MW of clean power, according to state officials.
Saudi Arabia has also jumped on the green energy bandwagon, with the stated goal of producing 60 GW of renewable power by 2030. Local media outlets reported that the majority of this would come from solar facilities, while the rest would rely on wind and other sources.
“Solar is receiving the most investment, but wind power is also receiving some,” says Dr. Ellen R. Wald, an expert on geopolitics and energy in the region. “As far as I know, no MENA (Middle East and North Africa) country is investing in geothermal or waste energy right now. Hydroelectric power is a renewable energy that doesn’t get much attention but is an important source in Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.”
Wald says the primary challenges in terms of adopting new sources of energy are similar to those found elsewhere; namely, that solar and wind power are not yet efficient enough to power modern economies.
Both Lahn and Wald contend that while several nations in the region have been making strides in renewable energy investments, the numbers still lag far behind much of the western world.
“In 2017, Europe and the US each saw over $40 billion invested in renewable energy, China meanwhile invested $126.6 billion,” says Lahn. In contrast, “just over $10 billion (was allocated) in the Middle East and the whole of Africa.”
“Other than in hydroelectric dams, MENA countries are definitely behind Europe and North America in terms of investment in renewables but they are rapidly increasing that investment now,” says Wald. “Morocco is investing in a major solar-thermal plant in the Sahara desert. This will be on par with those in the southwestern US.”
Dr. Harald Heubaum, a lecturer in Global Energy and Climate Policy at SOAS University of London, agrees that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Egypt are leading the way in the region.
“The sunshine hours that you get in the Middle East and North Africa are higher than in other parts of the world,” he says. “A lot of that is solar PV (photovoltaics), but there is some experimentation with concentrated solar power systems in Tunisia and a few other countries.”
He believes, however, that few countries in the region are likely to enthusiastically embrace alternative sources of energy due to their dependence on oil and gas, which remain inexpensive and readily available.
“One of the big challenges is the reliance a lot of countries have on hydrocarbons, which has an impact in places like Iraq where more than 90% of the country’s budget relies on oil revenue,” says Heubaum, underlining that ongoing conflicts compound the problem.
“It’s going to be difficult to convince the government and investors there to shift away from hydrocarbons aggressively. If you have an established industry it’s always hard to replace that especially if it’s very powerful.”