"Solar is the region’s most abundant energy resource”; “Every hour, the sun beams more energy onto our planet than we need to satisfy our total power needs for an entire year.”
These statements have become the mantra of the solar energy industry and rightly so, since they articulate the potential of sunlight to address our energy needs.
But it’s also true that, today, we’re already experiencing a new energy transition; one that’s redefining the global power generation portfolio and is centered on the growing realisation that renewables are no longer a subsidised extra, but a need-driven necessity. Consider this: at the turn of this century, the total installed capacity for solar photovoltaic (PV) modules was 1.5 gigawatts (GW); less than 15 years later, according to analyst estimates, the global industrywide installed capacity at the end of 2013, was 137GW. This is roughly the capacity equivalent of building nine nuclear power plants a year for 15 years.
Yet, despite the impressive numbers, the world is nowhere near leveraging the full potential of sunlight because of two principle reasons: first, the technologies are still evolving, some – such as First Solar’s thin film – faster than others; and second, the adoption of solar energy is disproportionate to its cost-competitiveness and reliability. In other words, although PV solar is more cost competitive and reliable than ever before, its use is not as widespread as it ought to be.
While no one can claim that solar alone offers the solution to the world’s energy problems, it can play an important role in a country’s energy generation portfolio. The solar component of an energy generation portfolio can be divided into sub-segments: centralised utility-scale power plants reliably delivering clean solar electricity in bulk to the high-voltage transmission grid; distributed generation systems that can help bridge the gap between energy demand and supply on the lower voltage distribution grid that serves customers directly; hybrid solutions, working in tandem with liquid fuel generators to address specific applications; and finally, off-grid systems delivering electricity to remote areas that aren’t connected to the grid.
While the region is right to focus its efforts on developing its utility-scale solar portfolio, the benefits of distributed generation should not be overlooked. Distributed solar energy plants make perfect sense when looking at, for instance, offsetting electricity consumption at peak times, or ‘peak shaving’ as those in the industry know it. It could take the form of a kilowatt-scale system on the roof of a house in Riyadh’s Al Wurud district or a megawatt-scale power plant at or on a factory in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Free Zone.
Considering that 65% of the electric utility loads are within buildings, out of which about 70% of the peak load is driven by electricity consumed for air-conditioning, a distributed generation approach creates a win-win situation for utility companies and their customers.
Since electricity consumption is highest around the time that the sun is at its zenith, distributed solar generation can help preserve the integrity of the grid by allowing users to self-consume the energy they produce at this critical point of the day, reducing their dependence on the grid.
In markets where a feed-in-tariff exists, these distributed solar plants would contribute towards peak shaving, by supplying power to the utility companies, allowing them to minimise power generation from peaking conventional generators. This would not only ease pressure on the rest of the power generation portfolio, saving resources and costs; it would also allow a utility company to optimise the utilisation of its conventional assets as base-load generators.
There is no denying the tremendous potential to be realizedfrom choosing a multi-pronged approach to harnessing solar energy. The region as a whole needs to move towards a mindset where it’s as commonplace to install a PV system as it is to install an air conditioning system in commercial, industrial,and even residential buildings.
About the author
Dr. Raed Bkayat is vice president of Business Development for the Middle East at First Solar.