Qatar sheds light on its solar-power future

Gas-rich Gulf state opens its ‘state-of-the-art’ solar panel facility.

QSE technicians monitor machinery producing solar panels [Robert Kennedy/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – Qatar has unveiled a first-of-its-kind solar-panel factory, saying it was now the largest solar-power producer in the region with the ability to generate 300mw of energy a year.

On Sunday, the Qatar Solar Energy company also announced a three-phase plan to eventually produce 2.5gw of solar energy annually, though QSE board member Reyad Fezzani would not specify a timeframe. 

“It’s an exciting future for solar energy and we haven’t even scratched the surface,” Fezzani said on a tour of the facility on the outskirts of the capital, Doha. 

While Qatar – the largest exporter of liquid natural gas in the world – is unlikely to trade fossil-fuel production for solar anytime soon, Fezzani said the time had come to focus on renewable energy. Qatar’s government plans to convert two percent of its power output to renewable sources by 2020.

“Hydrocarbons are going to be with us for many years, but we need to move towards environmentally friendly energy sources,” he said.

Qatar Solar Energy’s Reyad Fezzani [Robert Kennedy/Al Jazeera]

The development of solar power has taken off in recent years around the world, but particularly in the Middle East, where a day rarely goes by without long periods of the sun beating down on the desert sands. 

Over the past decade, investment in solar energy has soared, with $5bn spent in 2003 leaping to $93bn today, according to the Solar GCC Alliance.

Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, visited the solar panel factory for Sunday’s inauguration.

“What impresses me is that it’s driven by a visionary view of what we should be doing for the future,” Pachauri told Al Jazeera, adding the facility was “beyond state-of-the-art”.

“Yes, Qatar has extremely high [per capita greenhouse gas] emissions, but I suppose the beginning of a journey starts with the first step. And I would commend the fact that they are looking further into the future than most countries are.”

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Neighbouring Saudi Arabia has announced plans to produce 41gw of solar energy capacity to fuel its domestic needs by 2032, and has begun building massive solar power plants throughout the country. It is the largest proposed solar target in the world, however, it remains to be seen when production will commence.

Fezzani would not provide his company’s production estimates or costs, and would not name potential investors, saying success “depends on the market”.

“When the demand is there, we’ll be ready … There is nobody else producing 300mw in the region,” he said.

Qatar Solar Energy board member Kamel Ounadjela said 300mw would provide enough energy for 100,000 homes each year in high energy-consuming countries such as Qatar or the US.

While the solar industry continues to show promise, issues such as how to store the energy captured from the sun remain an obstacle.

US environmentalist Robert F Kennedy Jr [Al Jazeera]

“Storage is really a powerful tool for the future of solar power,” Fezzani said. “The technology is there, the issue is the cost.”

Robert F Kennedy Jr, an environmentalist and senior lawyer at the New York-based Natural Resource Defence Council, also visited the solar-panel facility for its opening.

“I think the government of Qatar is taking a longer view. There’s a finite energy supply here, which is natural gas, but at some point that’s going to run out and you still have the sunlight – that’s free energy,” Kennedy told Al Jazeera. 

“I think it’s great that they’re choosing this niche product, which is the highest quality solar panels that give the biggest return on energy.”

Source: Al Jazeera