Alasdair Cameron

The Middle East is not just blessed with hydrocarbons, it also blessed with an abundance of solar energy. Alasdair Cameron examines the available opportunities for exploiting the region’s ultimate natural resource.
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Standing on the rooftops of western Cairo, the desert stretches away beyond the city, fading into a vast and hazy horizon. From above, the sun beats down with relentless certainty while all around the honking of cars and hum of air conditioning pay testament to the surging energy demands of the expanding city. As the country’s population continues to grow rapidly, and the economy develops, ways must be found to provide electricity without destroying the local, and global, environment.

To anyone who has spent much time under the Middle Eastern or North African sun it seems obvious that harnessing this enormous power could be the key to a cleaner future. Now after years of neglect, speculation and delay, some real progress is afoot right across the Middle East. Concentrating solar power and photovoltaic projects are breaking ground, and even the traditionally conservative governments of the region are beginning to pay attention.

Solar Technology

Broadly, solar technology for electricity can be broken into two main categories.

Concentrating solar power (CSP) or concentrating solar thermal (CST) uses the suns heat, focused through mirrors to generate steam or power a Stirling Engine, which is then used to drive a turbine in much the same way as a conventional power station. While there are many subtle variations within this field, the three main systems are parabolic troughs, solar towers and Dish–Engine systems.

Of the projects being proposed in the Middle East, by far the most common are the parabolic trough systems. These have the advantage of a long proven track record, with the oldest facilities in California more than 20 years old and still producing reliable electricity.

Lying in the heart of the sunbelt and with an average Direct Natural Irradiation of over 5kW/m2 the Middle East was recognized as a prime region for development since the early days of CSP. Despite this, it is only now beginning to join in the worldwide renaissance that this technology is seeing.

Currently there are over 500 MW of CSP in operation across the world, with several hundred more in an advanced state of development in Spain and North America. Helped by renewable energy support schemes and the high price of fossil fuels, a study by Solarpaces, ESTIA and Greenpeace estimates that globally CSP could reach over 36 000 MW of installed capacity by 2025, of which 9000 MW would be in the Middle East, representing a market of over $8 billion.

Photovoltaics (PV), in contrast, use the energy generated by sun’s light striking a semiconductor to generate electricity. They too are being developed in the Middle East, although given the focus on centralized power production, photovoltaics do seem to have taken a back seat to the concentrating solar technologies.

Of the photovoltaic projects under development, the majority will employ crystalline technology, with the larger ones employing tracking systems. The higher capacities available from these systems help to displace expensive silicon cells and reduce the cost of electricity.

Other proposals continue to look at using concentrating photovoltaics (CPV) in which lenses are used to concentrate the sun’s rays onto a much smaller piece of silicon, with further potential cost reductions.

North Africa

Stretching for more than 3000 km along the Mediterranean, North Africa has endless potential for renewable energy generation, a fact that has not escaped policy makers in Europe (see page 15). Currently Algeria, Morocco and Egypt are leading the way, with three projects under construction, which contain a concentrating solar element.

Dish-Sterling systems could supply thousands of megawatts to the Middle East. Source: Sandia National Laboratory
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At Hassi-R’mel in Algeria, work is underway on the world’s first integrated solar and combined-cycle system (ISCCS). Helped on by a 2004 law, which introduced a feed-in tariff for CSP installations (currently set at 100-200 per cent above standard electricity prices depending on the percentage of solar energy a power station utilizes), this development consists of a 135 MW combined-cycle gas generator and a 25 MW parabolic trough system.

Financed by Abengoa and NEAL, the project is offering a template for other developments in the region.

Next door in Morocco, the Office Nationale d’Electricité (ONE) is developing a 450 MW ISCCS system, containing a 30 MW CSP component. While the solar part of this project may seem small, projects like this could help provide an important transition for an emerging industry. Construction contracts for the Moroccan development were awarded to Abener in 2007.

More widely, the Moroccan government seems to be beginning to recognize the importance of renewable energy and has invested $3.2 billion in a five-year renewable energy project, which will run until 2014.

As part of this they aim to achieve ten per cent of energy from renewables by 2012, up from four per cent in 2008. Part of this investment will fund a new campus for renewable energy and high technology research.

Photovoltaic developments in Morocco have seen ONE plan the installation of around 200 000 rooftop systems, as well as three stand alone photovoltaic stations of 3 MW, 10 MW and 100 MW. Spanish company Isofoton recently signed an agreement to provide panels for installations of between 500-1000 kW, beginning with ONE’s own regional facilities.

In Egypt, construction finally seems to have begun on the much-delayed Kuraymat CSP development. Financed by the Global Environment Fund (GEF) and the New and Renewable Energy Authority of Egypt (NREA) this project consists of a 146 MW ISCCS system with a 25 MW parabolic trough component. Under development by Spanish renewables giant Iberdrola and Orascum/Flagsol, the project should be completed in 2010, and will become Egypt’s first large scale solar development.

Looking to the future there are an additional 500 MW of CSP projects in the pipeline for this region, although whether or not they reach fruition is likely to depend on a number of factors, not least the success of the initial facilities and the recovery of the global economy.


Just across the Sinai desert from Egypt, Israel too has ambitious CSP plans. Blessed with a world class high-tech industry and abundant sunshine, and with a pressing desire for greater energy security, the state could be among the first few in the region to deploy this technology on a truly large scale.

Israel is also home to Solel, a world-leading developer of parabolic trough technology. Based at Beit Shemesh, Solel inherited much of the technology from Lux Engineering, one of the companies behind the original parabolic trough systems in California, USA.

The company is now actively seeking to tap into export markets, and recently provided 50 MW of parabolic troughs to the Lebrija project in Spain. Altogether Solel has more than 400 MW of parabolic troughs operating worldwide with a further 850 MW in the pipeline.

Back on the domestic front, Israel has long recognized the potential of CSP technology and has a feed-in tariff for the technology set at $0.16 – $0.20 per kWh. A site for a 500 MW development has been approved at Ashalim in the Negev Desert, but despite this there seems to be little sign that a project is imminent.

In photovoltaic technology, things look to be happening more quickly in Israel. Arava Power has teamed up with the Arava Institute of Desert Studies based at the Ketura Kibbutz. With its desert location and emphasis on self-reliance, Ketura Kibbutz seems an ideal candidate to develop solar power, and has already been testing a number of types of photovoltaic technology, with impressive results.

For thin-film systems with trackers, outputs of more than 19 per cent above manufacturer estimates have been recorded, while crystalline systems have been recorded with performances 28 per cent higher then estimated. All this rigorous testing is required because of the demanding local conditions (high ambient temperatures and wind blown dust). The first step for Arava is to develop a 2-4 MW system as a precursor to a far larger 500 MW development and it has already negotiated agreements with 15 kibbutzes for the use of their land.

Masdar and Abu Dhabi

As with so many things, the United Arab Emirates have big plans for solar power, and the biggest of these is the Masdar development in Abu Dhabi. Billed as the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city, the plans for Masdar are impressive and include a brand-new high efficiency city for 50 000 people, powered by renewable energy.

Altogether around 1500 MW of CSP is slated for development by 2020, with the first 100 MW already under construction at Madinat Zayed and due for completion in 2011. Even if the 1500 MW are developed, this could be just the start for the Emirate.

Estimates suggest that Abu Dhabi’s entire electricity demands could be met by 20 km2 of CSP, with a required investment of around $50 billion. Given the scale of ambition being shown in the region, could the oil state become the first in the world to utilize 100 per cent green electricity?

Masdar also has plans for photovoltaic technology and the first 10 MW installation was officially commissioned this month in a ceremony attended by Sheikh Diab bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Alongside the centralized systems, current plans for the Masdar eco-city envision thousands of rooftop solar panels generating more than 130 MW of electricity and hot water, as well as possible plans to use CSP for desalination.


To the very east of the region Iran too is making tentative steps into the solar power industry. Initial plans call for the redevelopment of an old 250 MW gas plant at Yazd, upgrading it to include 150 MW of CSP technology for a total of 400 MW. Sponsored by the Iranian Power Development Company, the project is at the initial stages of the development process.

Supply for Europe?

While countries like Israel or Egypt look to develop renewable energy for domestic demand, others are doing so with an eye to the international energy market. Long accustomed to exporting oil and gas, countries like Algeria and Saudi Arabia are aware of their solar potential. Other countries like Morocco are seeing their chance to cash in on their European neighbour’s energy demands.

The potential of large-scale solar energy is gaining increasing interest in Europe. Along with an offshore supergrid in the North Sea for wind and tidal energy, plans have been mooted for a Saharan supergrid, supplying clean energy from vast CSP and PV developments across the Mediterranean.

According to a recent estimate produced by the World Resources Institute (WRI), 6000 km2 of North Africa could supply energy equivalent to the entire oil output from the Middle East. Indeed, with Europe projected to develop more than 208 GW of new gas fired power by 2030, the WRI report estimates that this outlay could finance the construction of 280 GW of CSP, reducing carbon emissions by an estimated 4.6 billion tonnes.

While such vast investment is a long way away, initial steps at cooperation has already begun with the establishment of Mediterranean Solar Plan, which seeks to build 20 GW of capacity in the Middle East and North Africa by 2020, with export to Europe by high-voltage power lines.

Despite these positive signs, however, there are a number of serious issues to be addressed, particularly given Europe’s desire for energy security. It seems clear that there may be political and strategic barriers to having such a large percentage of European energy needs being met externally, in potentially unstable regions.

Nonetheless, a trans-Mediterranean energy system of some kind seems likely in the coming decades. MEE