Could solar energy help revive Jordan’s virus-hit economy?

Advocates want Jordan to ditch an unpopular gas deal with Israel to help accelerate transition to renewables.

Jordan coronavirus economy
People enjoy drinks at a cafe in Amman, Jordan where advocates of renewable energy say an acceleration of wind and solar projects could help the country's economy rebound from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic [File: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters]

Jordan is often described as “resource-poor” due to its lack of fossil fuels, limited agricultural land and water scarcity. But with more than 310 days of sun a year, strong winds and vast desert lands, the kingdom’s potential for renewable energy is among the most promising in the world.

Over the last decade, Jordan has been steadily unlocking that potential, with investment in solar and wind energy growing exponentially as the country tries to reduce its reliance on imported oil and gas.

The Jordanian government this month announced plans to increase the total share of renewables in the country’s energy mix from 11 percent in 2020 to 14 percent by 2030, and for renewable energy generation to reach 30 percent by the end of this decade.

But for some, those plans do not go far enough. Clean energy advocates believe aggressive investments in solar and wind could play a pivotal role in helping Jordan from the economic ravages of coronavirus. But an accelerated transition to renewables is being hampered, say some experts, by an unpopular deal to import fossil fuel from Israel.

jordan solar power
Between 2009 and 2012, utility-scale photovoltaic solar costs globally fell 66 percent, according to Lazard [Courtesy: Hashemite University]

Green by necessity

In 2008, Jordan imported 96 percent of its energy, leaving it at the mercy of fluctuating fossil fuel prices. That dependence, combined with the fallout of the global financial crisis, prompted officials to start thinking seriously about developing renewables.

“Jordan decided to diversify its energy mix and started developing local resources,” Samer Zawaydeh, president of the Association of Energy Engineers and an expert on renewable energy told Al Jazeera.

In 2008, solar and wind were expensive options for generating electricity. But between 2009 and 2012, utility-scale average  photovoltaic solar costs globally fell 66 percent, according to a study by Lazard.

Solar and wind are now the cheapest power generating options in two-thirds of the world, according to a 2019 analysis by BloombergNEF.

But it is not just market forces pushing Jordan towards a greener future. Geopolitics has also played a role.

In 2012, Jordan adopted its first Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Law, after gas supplies imported from Egypt were disrupted by attacks on the Arab Gas Pipeline the previous year.

“Countries are moving towards energy security. It’s the most cost-effective option, but it’s also a matter of survival,” said Zawaydeh.

Solar panels have been popping up on the rooftops of Jordanian homes, schools and factories since 2012, while several mega-solar projects were also launched in the sparsely populated southern provinces of the country.

One of the largest is Shams Ma’an, a 52.5MW solar farm in Ma’an managed by a consortium of companies including Jordan’s Kawar Energy investment group and Qatar’s Nebras Power.

Shams Ma’an currently generates 1 percent of Jordan’s electricity.

“Jordan has reached a capacity of 1,500MW of solar and wind energy,” Hanna Zaghloul, Kawar Energy’s chief executive, told Al Jazeera

Progress stalled in January 2019, when the Jordanian government suspended approvals for large-scale electricity projects, citing the need to conduct studies to assess grid capacity.

But Zawaydeh said the need to revive the country’s economy from the blow delivered by the coronavirus pandemic argues in favour of accelerating the country’s development of renewable energy.

Jordan’s unemployment rate – which hit 19 percent before lockdown restrictions were imposed earlier this year – is believed to have worsened considerably since then, and the International Monetary Fund sees the country’s cash-strapped economy shrinking at least 3.7 percent this year.

A report on the interlinkages between energy and jobs facilitated by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs cited research suggesting that investing in renewable energy can create 70 percent more jobs than investing in fossil fuels, and offer more stable and higher-quality employment.

“Renewables are cheaper, provide us with energy security, less pollution and provide us with jobs,” said Zawaydeh.  

Renewables are cheaper, provide us with energy security, less pollution and provide us with jobs

by Samer Zawaydeh, president, Jordan Association of Energy Engineers

An unpopular gas deal

For Kawar Energy’s Zaghloul, a major obstacle impeding the transition to renewables are long-term agreements for gas and oil purchases that have tied Jordan to the fossil fuel industry.

Among them is a highly unpopular and controversial deal to buy Israeli gas for the next 15 years.

Signed in 2016, the $10bn deal sparked widespread anger and protests across Jordan. Despite overwhelming popular opposition and the parliament’s vote against it, Jordan started importing gas from Israel in January.

Dureid Mahasneh, chairman of Jordan’s Energy Water and Environment Association (Edama), believes that the 2019 suspension of electricity projects above one megawatt is linked in part to those fossil fuel deals, especially given Jordan is producing more energy than it currently consumes.

Jordan agreed to buy 1.6 trillion feet of gas, or 45 billion cubic metres, from Israel, turning it into its largest gas supplier, and pay a $1.5bn penalty if it wishes to cancel the deal.

“We didn’t need those huge quantities [of Israeli gas],” Mahasneh told Al Jazeera.

“There was a limit on the price [of gas] if it hikes, but not if the price lowers,” he added. “We have a worldwide crisis and prices of oil and gas dropped down, but I don’t think they dropped for [Israeli] gas.”

Mahasneh wants to see the deal renegotiated, but that is proving difficult.

In January, Jordan’s parliament drafted a law to ban imports of Israeli gas, only to have Jordan’s Constitutional Court rule in May that international treaties and agreements are binding and cannot be overturned by parliament.

But the court’s ruling has not deterred activists from renewing calls to cancel the deal, arguing that instead of tying Jordan to Israel’s gas industry for 15 years the government should invest in local, sovereign and clean energy.

Activists also argue that the deal imperils the kingdom’s energy security as relations strain between Jordan and Israel.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned that Israel’s plan to annex large parts of the illegally occupied West Bank could lead to a “massive conflict” between the two countries.

Source: Al Jazeera