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EU: Where Sunshine Is Abundant, Solar Power Is Often Too Expensive

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Renewable energy sources like solar power and wind power are continuing to gain in popularity around the world. The European Union, for instance, wants its member states to use such methods to generate an overall 12 percent of their energy requirements by 2012. Paradoxically, however, it is in the cold countries of the Northern Hemisphere where solar power is most favored. In the lands of burning desert sun, like the Middle East, solar power is relegated to a niche market. Will this ever change while oil remains in plentiful supply?

Prague, 10 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As far as sunshine goes, the countries of the Middle East are lavishly blessed. Summers are long and hot, winters short, and the light is of blinding brightness. Perfect conditions -- one would think -- for the use of nonpolluting and renewable energy sources like solar power.

In its commercial form, solar power is now several decades old, and the sight of energy-generating panels on rooftops or in the countryside has become commonplace in many countries. The industry is now big business, with giant corporations like British Petroleum (BP) manufacturing solar power generation equipment.

"Solar power is not competitive. It is one of the renewable energy sources that is projected to become competitive in about 10 or 15 years."
The general manager of BP Solar's Saudi Arabian office in Riyadh, Abdul Mohsin, says his company does about $20 million in business in the Gulf region every year. He says the maintenance-free way that solar panels produce electricity makes them ideal when an electrical source is needed in a remote location. When the sun has gone down, batteries take over the load until morning.

"There are lots of remote desert areas in this country, the power grid is far away in terms of connection, so therefore the most economical solution to providing power at these remote sites is to provide it by photovoltaic solar power," Mohsin said.

Mohsin says more than 90 percent of BP Solar's core business is related to industrial projects -- for instance, in telecommunications and the aviation or marine industries. Typical applications might be beacons, signaling devices or automatic relay stations.

However, solar power is not usually used in the main power grids of the Middle East to supply homes and offices with electricity. Despite the strides made in recent years, it is still too expensive for general use, particularly in a region where oil and natural gas are abundant and cheap.

As Mohsin says, "Cost-wise, if you want to provide one megawatt of electricity, this one megawatt as generated by solar means will be very, very, very costly, and because our region depends so much on air-conditioning, appliances, big villas and big houses, and things like that, solar will not be an [adequate] solution."

That's because consistently generating the large amounts of electricity needed by hundreds or thousands of houses and offices is still beyond the reach of present solar technology -- whether it relies on the photovoltaic cell system or the thermal system of focusing concave mirrors at a particular point.

Solar power, therefore, cannot compete on cost grounds with the generation of electricity by conventional methods, such as the burning of fossil fuels. Jan van der Putte is an energy expert with the Greenpeace International environmental organization.

"Solar power is not competitive. It is one of the renewable energy sources that is projected to become competitive in about 10 or 15 years, depending on the projection. There are some new technologies now entering the market which will be much more cost-effective than the traditional solar power generation. But the systems still need to be produced on a larger scale, and you must have that necessary combination of new technologies and production on an industrial scale. And that is projected to lead to a competitive price for solar-voltaic electricity production around the year 2020," van der Putte said.

In some cases, however, solar energy is already arriving in the mainstream. For instance, panels made by the German technology giant Siemens are connected to the electricity supply grid of the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh. The plant supplies about five kilowatt hours of power daily to the resort and to the south Sinai. According to the installer, the Arabian Solar Energy and Technology Company of Cairo, it is the first such linkup in Egypt.

Van der Putte says new developments are under way in solar energy technology. He cites "thin-film" technology, in which a layer of energy-generating material can be laid onto metal plates, for instance. These plates can then be used as roofing material, replacing conventional tiles. This has the double advantage of achieving huge production runs while using fewer resources.

Van der Putte goes on to say that if the world wants to cut its dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels, the best way forward is to develop what he calls an "intelligent mix" of alternative sources. These sources would include solar and wind power, plus tidal energy and gas from biomass -- organic waste material.