In Oman, we can no longer ignore the catastrophe posed by climate change. Y’s Digital Editor Alvin Thomas investigates how our country is reviewing renewable energy sources and placing a premium on cleaner, more efficient forms of power.
Melting polar caps in the North and South Poles, a diminishing ozone layer, forest fires that reduce cities to rubble, draughts that result in the death of thousands annually, cyclones that periodically terrorise nations, heat waves that shoot up the mercury to levels unheard of – and yet we still ask: is climate change real?
Why the question is still warranted today baffles scientists and experts alike but the obvious realities surrounding climate change are far from comforting. If anything, they’re worrisome and terrifying.
And, with evidence surfacing on the dangers of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we here in Oman have just as much – if not more – to think about as any other country in the world.
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), climate change is caused due to the mind-boggling one million kilograms of smoke – which is comprised of byproducts such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur, nitrogen oxides, and even water vapour – that we add to the atmosphere around the world every second, and 40 billion tonnes annually (!)
Be it the gases emitted from your car to more large-scale applications such as the gases released during electricity production or water purification, there’s quite a lot we here in the Sultanate must account for, especially as it fits the bill as a country heavily reliant on non-renewable and unsustainable resources to fuel its energy requirements.
Before the important questions are answered, though, we need to define climate change. Often termed as one of the most misunderstood terms – mistaken with the term ‘global warming’ – in environmental science, NASA simply outlines it as various factors affecting our planet including rising sea levels, shrinking mountain glaciers, accelerating ice melt in Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic, and shifts in flower or plant blooming times, and so on, brought out by climatic changes.
Both ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are relatable terms but remain different in a way that the former addresses a broader spectrum than just the warming of the planet over a long period.
“It has,” says Sultan al Amri, an environmental studies professor and an expert in alternative energy solutions at a leading university in Oman, before adding: “Climate change has definitely brought out several changes – and it has and continues to affect this country in really enormous ways.
“Take for instance the two cyclones – Mekunu and Luban – that we faced here in Oman, this year alone (2018),” he says.
“The sound of thunder doesn’t lie. In fact, Oman is now considered to have a cyclone season – something it didn’t just a few decades ago. The country’s first cyclone was recorded in 1977 and then in 1996.
“The year 2007 marked a big change in the country, though. The cyclone Gonu marked the start of annual cyclones and low depression zones in the Arabian Sea.
In truth, Oman has witnessed six cyclones since Gonu. But, it’s the two cyclones we witnessed this year that begs the question: “Are cyclones becoming more prevalent in Oman (?)”
“That’s not normal here in Oman,” says the professor. “So, we took this matter up for study to determine the cause of this phenomenon. We had several teams come from the USA to study this along with the students here and finally it was put down to the climatic changes we’ve been witnessing during the summer months here in the region.
“It’s a very simple explanation. As the temperatures around land and air Oman increases, so does the temperature of the water bodies. So, we were able to determine that the temperature of the Arabian Sea was much warmer than usual, which – at least in the case of cyclone Gonu – resulted in a longer and more powerful cyclone.
“And that’s the general rule of thumb. As the carbon dioxide and other gases fill up the atmosphere, it heats up the air around us. And this results in warmer oceans, which is the perfect ground for moist air. This can then result in longer rainfalls that will inevitably result in floods and other damages.
“Even so, that’s just one aspect of global warming that we need to be aware of. What the people need to understand is that the environment should be considered an inter-connected organ that can be affected by even the slightest changes.
“This means, as time goes forward, we’ll experience longer and more hotter days in summer as the greenhouse gases trap the heat above the land of Oman. Moreover, on a very local scale, anyone staying around areas where there’s heavy carbon-based automation will experience an increase of up to 5-degree-Celsius in the land around them, especially in the months between April and September.
This largely stands true, as we learn from the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) that Oman’s average temperature stood at 27.8 degree-Celsius in 2016 as opposed to the 26.3 degree-Celsius from 2007 – a whopping 1.5 degree-Celsius increment in the span of a mere nine years.
In an interview with Y, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (who wishes to remain anonymous) says: “The data that we receive are by no means surprising to us – especially because our energy demands, manufacturing, and commuting has increased in the time frame.
“For example, in the year 1978, Oman released roughly 7.55 tonnes of CO2 (carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere, while the number increased to 15.44 tonnes of CO2 in 2014.
“This means, each individual had 15.44 tonnes of carbon dioxide corresponding to them in that year – a shocking number for a country that barely has a population of 4.6million (4.2m in 2014).
“And, the matters only become worse when you realise that the CO2 emissions per capita in Oman was three times higher that year. The CO2 emissions worldwide averaged at 4.97 tonnes per capita, when compared with Oman’s appalling 15.44 tonnes mark,” he remarks, before going on to state that the reasons for the three-fold output are “lack of taxation on cars with high displacement engines, use of fossil fuels for energy generation, and increasing number of industries in the country”.
On the upside, though, this is being recognised in Oman and actions are being taken, says the ministry official.
Currently, nearly 65 per cent of the nation’s energy production relies on crude oil, while the rest is pegged on natural gas. However, this is changing, and even as the Sultanate slowly picks itself up from the oil crisis of 2015, we learn that over the next decade, the nation will switch to greener technologies that will help reduce its carbon footprint.
Prof. Sultan is one of the leading advocates of this “green” switch. He says: “The positives of switching from oil and natural gas for electricity production via, say, combustion turbines or gas turbines are immense, and the people are aware of it.
“Simply cutting down production by 40 per cent would significantly reduce the CO2 emissions per capita in Oman by about 20 to 25 per cent. But for that to happen, we’ll need to begin investing heavily in solar power – a concept that will work very well in Oman owing to the solar radiation that we receive currently.
“The government has understood this and there are several solar projects – both on a private and on a business level – being implemented in Oman.”
A few years late to make this transition when compared with its GCC neighbours, Oman’s first calling for green energy came as early as 2008 at the annual session of the Council of Oman when His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said emphasised the importance of utilising “alternatives for generating power”.
It has been a decade since the speech but the results are gradually starting to bear fruit. For instance, several (private) home owners are now taking it onto themselves to set up solar panels at their homes and utilise the energy generated by the panels to power their everyday requirements.
It’s a viable option when compared with routinely pulling energy from the grid, reads a study published by the Public Authority for Electricity and Water (PAEW). It also reveals how Muscat alone could generate a staggering 450 megawatts (MW) of power – which is comparable to a mid-size gas power plant.
With such benefits on offer, even the government is in on the act now. It has begun setting the groundwork for six new projects – three solar and three wind-powered projects – that can generate nearly 2,650 megawatts (MW) of electricity when completed.
The solar projects are expected to be set up at Ibri, Manah, and Adam – three locations that have been touted as ideal for solar applications while the wind farms will be situated in Dhofar and Duqm, with the third location yet to be confirmed.
This comes in addition to the 50 MW wind farm that’s currently being set up in Dhofar by Rural Areas Electricity Company (RAECO) and Abu Dhabi Energy Future Company (Masdar), and a 500 MW solar photovoltaic (PV) project in Ibri.
Even the nation’s leading gas and oil exploration firm Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) is investing heavily in solar energy.
Their latest project will aim to develop a 100 MW solar PV power plant to generate power for PDO’s own use. When completed, PDO will have a capacity of over 1,100 MW, with its 1000 MW operational solar facility in the southern region of Amal.
Oman’s push to sell solar energy doesn’t end there, either. Launched early in 2017, the ‘Sahim’ initiative in Muscat is expected to connect houses powered by solar energy to a grid so that the occupants can supply energy to the grid for an added income.
That said, in a meeting with the Omani business community at the Oman Economic Review Business Summit of 2017, Raoul Restucci, the managing director of Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) was reportedly quoted as saying that 50 per cent of Omani houses in Muscat will be fitted with a rooftop solar system.
He then takes it one step forward in an interview with a leading solar energy solutions provider, GlassPoint, where he is seen saying: “I think the oil industry will gradually transition into an energy industry, with a shift to solar, wind, and other renewable applications which will shift onto more and more such programmes.”
GlassPoint itself is currently a pioneer in thermal enhanced oil recovery (EOR) – a system that’s incorporated to provide effective solutions to oil and gas industries using solar power.
Unlike solar panels that generate electricity, however, GlassPoint’s solution makes use of large mirrors that can concentrate sunlight and boil oilfield water directly into steam. This steam is then used for the extraction of viscous or heavy oil as an alternative to steam generated from natural gas – an effective solution when compared with older techniques.
Oman is also banking on wind energy to fulfill any gap in the energy needs. Feasibility studies have shown mixed results but the government is still investing heavily on the technology to add to the growing list of “green” synergies.
Albeit, there’s much concern surrounding the nation’s first wind farm, which was due to begin operations from Harweel in 2017. With no official date announced for its opening, we’re yet to hear back about the operations of the 25-strong wind turbine farm – but sources say that the project is still in full swing with the opening date pushed back to 2020.
Solar and wind energy aside, however, another aspect where Oman is currently focusing on reducing its carbon footprint is on the roads. While a 100 per cent shift from traditional combustion engines is difficult, Oman is slowly beginning to set up a framework for electric vehicles here in Oman – and the first of its initiatives came to light earlier this year when electric carmaker, Tesla, dipped its toes into the country with its Global Electric Vehicle Road Trip (EVRT) that saw the Sultanate as a host.
Showcasing its energy-efficient, zero-emissions cars – the Model X and Model S – at the InterContinental Muscat hotel, which is also the home of the first electric charging station in Oman, Tesla made its debut here. Several bystanders were clearly intrigued by the innovation and overall effectiveness of the vehicles in reducing one’s carbon footprint.
But, Prof. Sultan tells us that going completely carbon-free isn’t possible; not even in a Tesla. “In Oman, there’ll never be anything called a zero-emissions car until we reduce our reliance on non-renewables to generate our electricity.
“While the obvious benefits are visible in the fact that you’re now driving an electric car as opposed to a traditional vehicle powered by a combustion engine, you’re still deriving the power for your car from the electric grid.
“Not only will that increase your electricity requirements, it will also end up doing more harm than good at this point.
“Still, in the next five years, if homes are powered by renewable energy, these cars would be 100 per cent zero-emission and efficient.”
It’s a thought shared by our source at the Royal Oman Police (ROP) too. He asks: “How can we call a car that’s running off the electricity generated by a grid powered by natural gas be completely green (?)
“That’s ridiculous. Combustion engines will definitely stay for a few more years – at least until we can completely figure out our internal energy crisis, and other factors such as how we can make these batteries last longer, safer – as they tend to explode when they catch fire, and incentives that can be offered to people who opt for these cars.
“Until then, this will remain an added luxury for those wanting to stand out. These are expensive cars after all,” he adds, before revealing briefly that a framework is being created for electric cars – one that should be revealed to the masses in 2019,” he adds.
In a complete twist, however, our source at the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs then comes back to us after our initial interview to reveal another great worry that has been on Oman’s plate recently: plastics.
Plastic, a polymer and a hydrocarbon, poses its own risks – for instance as it’s known for its long half-life; difficulty to contain, especially in the case of low density plastics; its potential to cause cancer; and generally, its harm to the fauna.
But, the official points out another downside to using the polymer: its effect in rushing the process of climate change.
In a telephone interview, he explains: “Plastics are a vile creation – its negatives outweigh its positives. And perhaps, of everything we’d discussed before, this must be the least ‘green’ product we’ve ever dealt with in Oman.
“Now, you would be aware of how seriously the government has taken recycling and other such activities to curb littering and increase the reuse of plastics. But, even so, there’s just so much out there.
“And these plastics, when they come in contact with the photons from lights, it breaks down into gases or composites. Moreover, when they come under intense sunlight, like it does in Oman, they break down and their size (surface area) increases, releasing more gases.
“What’s worrisome is that these are all greenhouse gases like methane and ethylene – both of which are extremely harmful to the atmosphere. Methane, for instance, is known to be more than 20 times more potent than CO2.
“This gives us more reasons to implement a nationwide plastic ban. But, something on that level would probably take us a few more months to achieve.”
A quick research into the topic also shows us how nearly 6 per cent of the global oil consumption is diverted towards creating plastics.
The official goes on to add: “The term ‘green’ technology is a notion far away from us. It isn’t even an arm’s length away from us. Countries in Europe have adopted several technologies, experimented with it, and funded billions of Euros in research and development to create a sustainable form of energy extraction or creation.
“We, at this point, can do nothing more than adopt those technologies. And for that very reason, it remains expensive. But, as we go along and implement several of them here, then we will also be able to work on it and develop our own equipment.
“And that’s key to “green” technologies. It doesn’t work when forced upon; it needs to come from within the country. And for that very reason, a green Oman is a good decade away. But, I assure you that when we do attain that, we’ll be pioneers in renewable energy and green technology.
“It’s not just empty words that I’m saying here. Oman is really on track for this. And to begin with things we’ve pledged to cut 2 per cent of our greenhouse gases in an action plan submitted to the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) – and we’re well on track to beat our targets.”