Here Comes the Sun
On a trip home over the New Year break I started the process of building a home for my family on the Sunshine Coast. As an Australian I am used to the outdoors, sunny weather and seeing solar panels sprawled over suburban rooftops. The installation of a photovoltaic solution in my building process was therefore an easy decision to make. With the cost of electricity, government rebates and the warm weather of Queensland it was a no brainer to not only install a solar system but to also take advantage of Tesla selling their new battery wall in Australia, allowing me to potentially go ‘off-grid’. But as I excitedly planned the system requirements and reviewed the return on investment I started to think about why I did not see the same adoption of solar technology across the residential market in the Middle East. Surely a country that experiences on average 3,508 hours of sunshine per year, second only to the Sahara, would be saturated in solar panels.
The UAE ticks all the boxes when it comes to REN21’s policy matrix for solar regulation. REN21 is an international non-profit association under the United Nations Environment Program which networks together governments, private sector and academic institutions. In their 2014 report REN21 even identified the UAE as the fourth largest generator of Concentrating Solar Thermal Power (CSP). CSP systems use reflective lenses or mirrors to concentrate sunlight to a small area that then converts light to heat and drives a steam turbine to generate power. This is an amazing feat for the UAE considering some of the nations it overtook in such a short time. CSP are sizeable facilities that require much larger investment compared to that of photovoltaic technology which has become increasingly inexpensive due to decreases in manufacturing costs and leveraging of scale. PV panels differ to CSP as they turn solar energy into direct current via semiconductors. This makes PV solar panels an ideal solution for residential homes where energy can be used direct in the home via an inverter, put back onto the grid when not used or stored in battery solutions such as the Tesla Power Wall when required to use at night. But why is the UAE investing on large scale infrastructure and solar arrays such as CSP while there is no visible growth in the residential market?
The International Renewable Energy Agency was established in Abu Dhabi in 2011 and aims to support the adoption of widespread use of renewable energy. IRENA’s headquarters are within the Masdar precinct which has a vision to make Abu Dhabi set the world’s benchmark for sustainable development. Irena released a report last month that analysed the GCC renewable energy market, reviewed barriers to entry and discussed opportunities in the region. With a target of 24% clean energy by 2021, the UAE is taking the lead in the adoption of renewables. With over 50% of energy produced in the GCC now being consumed by residential and commercial facilities the need for this market to take up renewable energy is becoming increasingly important especially with over 60% of energy being used to ventilate properties. IRENA’s report claims that energy costs are still too low to warrant large scale adoption of renewables in the residential market. I believe though that further initiatives are required to encourage adoption of renewables in the UAE market where the majority of residential occupiers are renting rather than owner occupiers.
Some of the initiatives I would recommend to increase the take up of solar technology in the residential market are:
- Introduction of incentives to owners to improve the return on investment for solar panel installation
- Long term feed-in tariff rates that allows owners with solar panels to sell excess power back to the grid at a reasonable rate
- Financing options by electricity companies to lower the investment required for owners to install solar panels
- Introduction of virtual net metering that would allow landlords to sell renewable energy at a reduced rate to tenants after installing solar panels. This would benefit tenants who pay lower energy costs while allowing landlords to subsidise the cost of their solar panel installation.
- Incentives such as rebates or ongoing credits for developers to build solar panels in new properties
- Increases to residential electricity costs, especially those in the peak hours where solar could be used to offset air-conditioning power usage.
- Designing sustainable, long term leases that allows for co-contribution by both the owner and tenant in renewable devices that lowers operating costs for the occupant and increases value for the owner.
- Regulation of the solar panel installation market by local authorities to ensure the best quality of installation occurs with the most efficient technology Without incentives for the UAE residential renewables market the sector will continue to be led by adoption in the Industrial and transportation segments. While this will still see ambitious targets met, it will not engage the population in the same way that I have seen in Australia and other markets where PV solar installations were incentivized and heavily adopted. This engagement is what excites me and challenges me to look at what other ways I can change the design of my home to be sustainable to the local environment and to benefit not just me but my children’s future also.