Oman plans to usher in a new generation of solar energy but are the rays of the sun really enough to power the country? Alvin Thomas and Kate Ginn investigate.
Imagine this: The year is 2030, it’s 32 degrees outside and you’re out for a stroll around the residential streets of Azaiba, enjoying the warmth of an April day. Glancing up, something catches your eye: the sight of row upon row of solar panels on top of house roofs glinting in the sunshine, sucking in the rays of the sun.
It’s a scene that’s repeated across the Sultanate, stretching from Salalah to Musandam, with solar panels harnessing the sun’s power to create another precious form of power: electricity.
If you think this sounds like some kind of far-fetched scenario, then think again.
As Oman looks for ways to decrease its dependence on oil and gas, attention is turning to renewable energy. It seems that solar power will play a big part in this and be introduced earlier than you might think. Just last week, the Authority for Electricity Regulation Oman (AER) – Oman’s power sector regulator – announced that it was taking steps to pave the way for homeowners to install solar panels on their rooftops and to channel any surplus electricity back into the national grid.
It’s not that revolutionary. After all, countries around the world, including Oman on a small scale, have been using solar power for years, so it’s nothing new. But what it does do is mark a significant shift in thinking in Oman. Decision makers are looking for other sources to power the country and they’ve looked up to the sky and seen the light, as it were. With pretty much year-round sunshine, it would seem foolhardy for the Sultanate not to cash in on that omnipresent sun in the sky and the potential that it offers for abundant clean energy.
Some prominent companies in Oman have already adopted solar power or piloted schemes. Majan Electricity Company, a subsidiary of Nama Group, installed solar systems atop its head office in Sohar and a car park in the complex.
Knowledge Oasis Muscat (KOM) and Sultan Qaboos University also dabbled in solar power.
And Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) has been using solar power at a low level out in the oil fields.
But the new proposal would see solar launched on a much larger scale, pushed across Oman and used domestically, not just in business.
A study commissioned by the Public Authority for Electricity and Water (PAEW) last year revealed that Photovoltaic (PV) systems (solar panels) installed on residential buildings in the Sultanate could offer an estimated 1.4 gigawatts (GW) of electricity; it’s estimated that Muscat Governorate alone could generate a whopping 450 megawatts (MW), similar to a mid-sized gas-based power plant. But the big question remains: is it feasible that solar energy could one day power most of Oman?
Raman Kumar, an expert in solar energy and general manager of Oman Solar Systems in Oman, seems to think so.
Talking about the new solar initiatives in the country, he says that by reducing its dependency on oil, Oman is opening up a stronger and sustainable market while giving oil companies a chance to strengthen their footing in the country.
Raman says that some organisations in Oman have already adopted solar power. His company has set up more than 7,500 solar power systems for the Government and private organisations in the country. One of his first projects was back in 1995 with Oman TV, which used solar systems for self-sustenance of its 150 relay stations used to broadcast around the country.
However, talking about the early challenges his team faced, Raman says: “Back in the early 90s, companies serving the oil and gas sector saw us as competitors.
“However, the onset of solar power in the late 90s led to companies adopting newer corporate social techniques to improve theirstatus as an environmental player.”
This period, he says, changed the way people looked at solar power. “All of a sudden, the oil, television and telecom companies were using solar panels in their offices to sustain their stations and offices.
“People were now convinced that solar power would work as an effective mode of electricity generation in the country.”
However, take-up for solar power is still slow in domestic homes on a commercial basis.
Now would be the perfect time to make that shift, according to Muna al Farsy, a lecturer at the Higher College of Technology (HCT) and project manager of the GreenNest Eco House (see P24), which is part of a Government-funded project to create homes of the future in Oman using green technology, such as solar and water recycling.
“Oman is currently looking to gap the hole created in its budget due to falling and unstable oil prices and now would be a perfect time to cut the oil companies some slack,” says Muna.
Her project, a standalone full-scale model of a house that incorporates 76 solar panels onto the rooftop to power the home, offers a glimpse into a potential future.
“We knew solar energy mainly from its success in the West,” Muna says. “In countries like Germany, it solved the energy crisis by bringing into equation local houses, which could harvest solar power during the days and feed it back to the grid later.”
Which brings us to another reason why the Government might be keen to push solar energy.
With a RO4.5 billion budget deficit, the Government is embarking on a range of austerity measures, lowering spending and slashing subsidies. In January, it was revealed that this could include getting the electricity price subsidies, which totalled an estimated RO450 million last year, by up to seven or eight per cent. Introducing solar energy would reduce the amount of electricity consumed, thereby further reducing subsidies needed and seeing a drop in electricity bills for residents.
On average, one square metre of land in Oman can produce 200 watts of electricity per hour from PV power, which would be enough to power 10 lightbulbs for an hour.
And it would cost about 770 baisa worth of equipment to produce one watt of power. Currently, it costs residential consumers 10 baisa to use 1kW in one hour, rising to 30 baisa if more than 10,000 units are consumed.
Muna says that her 1300-square-metre model house costs RO120,000 to build, three times the cost of an average Omani house, but she believes this could be cut by half, or even more, if more people adopted the system, or if the Government began providing incentives to people for upgrading to solar power.
It has to be noted that solar power has not really been taken seriously until the prospect of a feed-in tariff – getting paid for surplus power produced – was mooted.
Muna also says that a lot of controversies surrounding solar in the past, such as fragile panels and susceptibility to dust and heat, are no longer relevant.
However, even with recent advancements in technology, solar panels have limitations in functioning at full efficiency in the heat.
“On a 50-degree afternoon, the efficiency of a panel could reduce up to 35 per cent,” Raman Kumar points out.
This could translate to a 10MW PV panel producing only 6.5MW over a period of time. Although with the advent of “black solar cells” – which are more advanced systems – users can now expect higher output, higher temperature tolerances and reduced susceptibility to dust.
Solar power has developed in leaps and bounds over the years. New technology being developed includes “rollable” solar panels that can be laid out like a carpet.
Solar technology can be incorporated into new homes being built in the Sultanate, meaning the system is already in place for residents to use.
Bryan Richards, a technical director at Technic Group Oman, says his company is looking to start building “green” low-cost housing in Muscat within a matter of months.
A plot of land in Al Hail North has been identified for 15 villas comprising two to three bedrooms, with approval already given by Muscat Municipality.
“We’re at the design stage,” says Bryan. “The houses will be as green as we can make them. They will be made with high thermal materials and have double-glazing.
“There will be high-efficiency air-con units running during the day off solar panels. At night, the power will switch seamlessly over to the mains.
“We hope to break ground in the next month or so. Our homes will take less time to build and cost less. We can have the shell of the house done [roof, windows, walls and doors] within three weeks.”
His company, which has a partner and supplier for solar panels, is hoping to ride the solar panel wave that seems to be gathering momentum in the country.
“It’s very feasible to one day see solar panels on all homes in Oman,” says Bryan. “It would be foolish not to, we know that it works.
“And every day that the sun is shining, you are getting a return on your investment.
“You just need to ensure that you have the right equipment and meters to measure power consumed and generated.
“The only reason it has not taken off here on a large scale before is that people like to see things tried and tested before taking a leap.”
On average, most homes would only need around 10 solar panels and it would cost about RO2,000 as a conservative estimate to have the equipment fitted, he adds.
Yet it could cut a household’s electricity consumption by up to 50 per cent. Users would also get paid for any surplus energy put back into the main electricity grid.
With panels able to withstand temperatures up to 65 degrees Celsius, an Omani summer shouldn’t be a problem either.
Oman, then, seems ready for solar power. The only question is when it will happen.
“Powering residential houses around the Muscat Governorate in one phase would be impractical and expensive,” a spokeswoman from the AER told Y this week.
“We can start with areas in the outskirts first, where the concentration of houses are lesser.”
Government incentives to encourage people to take up solar panels would also be needed, she added.
Everyone seems to be in agreement that the time for prevaricating is over. It really is time to make hay while the sun shines.
The solar heating sector in the European Union in 2010 alone amounted for €2.6 billion (RO1.1bn) and generated 17.3 terawatt-hours (TWh) of energy. More photovoltaic systems have also been connected to the grid since, and amounts more than €36 billion yearly. Germany is the second-largest producer of PV power in the world with 38.832 GW, accounting for 6.4 per cent of the country’s electricity production. Italy, France and Spain are the other major PV countries in the EU.
Making a shift into Photovoltaic (PV) solar systems only recently, Australia manages to extract 4.860 GW of electricity from its PV, furthermore contributing to 1.1 percent of the produced electricity in the country. New South Wales and Queensland amount to a majority of the country’s output. Australia is currently 9th in the list of PV countries.
Solar power is incorporated both commercially and residentially and the industry is booming, with more than 400 PV companies. China remains the largest installer of PV and producer of solar panels in the world, quadrupling production over a two-year period. This year, China also became the world’s largest producer of PV power at a whooping 43 GW.
The use of PV power in India is currently restricted to states such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. However, several residents opt to use standalone systems for private PV production. India produces a total of 5.547 GW every year. Recent studies show that the country has a potential to produce 5,000 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, which would exceed the possible energy output from all the fossil-fuel energy in the country.
Muscat’s new international airport could learn a thing or two from the Cochin International Airport in Cochi, Kerala, which is the world’s first solar-powered airport. It makes use of 46,150 solar panels across a 45-acre complex adjacent to the airport. All the electrical and mechanical systems are PV powered, however, electrical systems from the grid are on standby should an outage occur.
While a majority of the GCC countries have the potential to sustain themselves using energy from fossil fuels alone, a shift in outlook has made headway and new projects are being incorporated across the countries.
Solar energy has the potential to produce power for the entire country throughout the year. Abu Dhabi began Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) production in 2013, producing 100MW. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi was originally designed to be the world’s most environmentally sustainable city. It produces a total of 11 MW from PV sources in the site, and from rooftops.
Dubai’s Clean Energy Strategy proposed a 1000 MW Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Seih Al Dalah that will provide seven per cent of Dubai’s energy from clean energy sources by 2020. The first phase providing 12 MW from its solar farm has been completed.
Saudi Arabia currently has one solar PV plant producing an output of 500 kW. A 200kW installation is expected to make headway in Riyadh, along with a massive 54 GW PV plant by 2040.
Kuwait plans to incorporate solar power into the main grid by 2030. The country is expected to set up a 4500 MW solar plant, with works scheduled to begin next year.
Yemen has a standalone PV station with batteries producing 3kW.
Solar energy is a truly renewable energy source. It can be harnessed in all areas of the world and is available everyday. We cannot run out of solar energy, unlike some of the other sources of energy. Solar energy will be accessible as long as we have the sun. Sunlight will be available to us for at least 5 billion years, when according to scientists the sun is going to die.
Since you will be meeting some of your energy needs with the electricity your solar system has generated, your energy bills will drop. How much you save on your bill will be dependent on the size of the solar-power system and your electricity or heat usage. Moreover, not only will you be saving on the electricity bill but, if you generate more electricity than you use, the surplus will be exported back to the grid and you will receive bonus payments for that amount (considering that your solar panel system is connected to the grid).
Solar energy can be used for diverse purposes. You can generate electricity (photovoltaics) or heat (solar thermal). Solar energy can be used to produce electricity in areas without access to the energy grid, to distill water in regions with limited clean water supplies and to power satellites in space. Solar energy can also be integrated in the materials used for buildings.
Solar energy systems generally don’t require a lot of maintenance. You only need to keep them relatively clean. Most reliable solar panel manufacturers give 20-25 years warranty. Also, as there are no moving parts, there is no wear and tear. The inverter is usually the only part that needs to be changed after five to 10 years because it is continuously working to convert solar energy into electricity (solar PV) and heat (solar thermal). So, after covering the initial cost of the solar system, you can expect very little spending on maintenance and repair work.
Technology in the solar power industry is constantly advancing and improvements will intensify in the future. Innovations in quantum physics and nanotechnology can potentially increase the effectiveness of solar panels and double, or even triple, the electrical input of the solar power systems.
The initial cost for purchasing a solar system is fairly high. Although some governments have introduced schemes to encourage the adoption of renewable energy sources, you still have to cover the upfront costs. This includes paying for solar panels, inverter, wiring and for the installation. Nevertheless, solar technologies are constantly developing, so it is safe to assume that prices will go down in the future..
Although solar energy can still be collected during cloudy and rainy days, the efficiency of the solar system drops. Solar panels are dependent on sunlight to effectively gather solar energy. Therefore, a few cloudy, rainy days can have a noticeable effect on the energy system. You should also take into account that solar energy cannot be collected during the night.
Solar energy has to be used right away, or it can be stored in large batteries. These batteries, used in off-the-grid solar systems, can be charged during the day so that the energy is used at night. This is a good solution for using solar energy all day long but it is also quite expensive. In most cases it is smarter to just use solar energy during the day and take energy from the grid during the night (you can only do this if your system is connected to the grid). Luckily our energy demand is usually higher during the day so we can meet most of it with solar energy..
The more electricity you want to produce, the more solar panels you will need, because you want to collect as much sunlight as possible. Solar panels require a lot of space and some roofs are not big enough to fit the number of solar panels that you would like to have.
Although pollution related to solar energy systems is far less compared to other sources of energy, solar energy can be associated with pollution. Transportation and installation of solar systems have been associated with the emission of greenhouse gases. There are also some toxic materials and hazardous products used during the manufacturing process of solar photovoltaics, which can indirectly affect the environment. Nevertheless, solar energy pollutes far less than the other alternative energy sources.