Indeed, as economic and social conditions shift in the MENA region, investing in solar capacity has become a more attractive option. During the 20th century, it was the fastest-growing part of the world. This has left countries such as Egypt with some serious challenges, including overcrowding, a high rate youth unemployment and a lack of resources. At the same time, the oil riches that once supported a number of regional economies are beginning to run out. According to the World Bank, MENA as a whole became a net importer of energy in 2011. In 2010 net exports of energy were equal to 148% of energy use. The following year, the region’s net imports of energy were equal to 87% of its use. Even the oil-rich nations know that there will come a time when the commodity will run out, and alternative energy is one way to guarantee access to power when that day comes.
A number of solar projects are already under way or have been announced. Morocco, a country highly dependent on imported oil, has embarked on a $9bn plan to build five alternative energy power stations by 2020. The country already has a 20-MW concentrating solar power (CSP) plant at Aïn Beni Mathar, and work on the first 160-MW phase of a 500-MW solar plant in the Ouarzazate region is expected to begin by the end of 2012 and be completed by 2015, according to research by Oxford Business Group, a global consultancy specialised in the analysis of emerging markets.
Algeria has said it will spend $60bn to develop alternative energy capabilities, and is aiming for 650 MW of renewable power by 2015 and 22 GW by 2030 – 12 GW for domestic use and 10 GW for export. Tunisia plans to start building the massive 2-GW TuNur solar project in 2014, with the aim of generating electricity there by 2016, while Libya announced a $3bn solar programme in 2010. Egypt’s 150-MW Kuraymat solar power plant has been operational since June 2011. The 13-ha facility is part of the country’s push to get 20% of its energy from renewables by 2020.
Countries in the Gulf region are gearing up too. In Saudi Arabia, officials from the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy have called for building 41 GW of solar capacity over the next 20 years. In Abu Dhabi, Masdar Power, a developer and operator of renewable power projects, has announced that the $700m, 100-MW Shams 1 project was on target for completion by the end of 2012.
Abu Dhabi has also encouraged investments in energy-efficient building that could promote a shift in usage from hydrocarbons-based power to solar and other renewable sources, according to the report from Oxford Business Group. But these types of changes must occur on a broader basis across the region if alternative energies are to be utilised on a larger scale. The truth about renewables is that they cannot entirely replace conventional energy sources unless societies adjust consumption. That requires greater use of efficient lighting technologies, the construction of more green and intelligent buildings and higher investment in efficient cooling systems.
Despite these challenges, the development of solar capacity seems set to continue, particularly in the wake of the 2010 Arab Spring, which has put a damper on investments in potential alternatives, such as nuclear. Indeed, before the uprisings, a number of nuclear programmes were in the works in Arab states, in part to address demographic pressures, in particular to power large-scale desalination plants to ensure access to safe and clean water. After the uprisings, many nuclear projects in the region have come to a halt, with investors concerned about the viability of new governments. While solar has some downsides as well – including the fact that it is at present a relatively expensive source of power – it nonetheless appears well-positioned as a source of alternative energy to meet the demands of these rapidly expanding markets.