Middle East to reap solar energy investment whirlwind

Trillions of dollars are forecast to flood into the region over the next 20 years as technological advances make solar energy a viable alternative.

Industry watchers now believe that technology being deployed in PV solar panels will fuel the kind of growth already witnessed in the IT sector. Daryl Visscher
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The Middle East is about to experience a trillion-dollar global investment bonanza as increased efficiencies start to make solar panels as economical as wind turbines.
The Moore's Law theory that computer transistor power doubles every two years is about to spread to the technology used in photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, creating new business opportunities.
"The Silicon Valley mantra of smaller, faster, cheaper hasn't really applied to the photovoltaic market - until recently, that is, when module level power management (MLPM) systems started being employed in solar installations," says Greg Sheppard, the chief research officer at the research firm iSuppli, based in California.
"Global MLPM installations are forecast to reach 7.8 gigawatts by 2014, managing a compound annual growth rate of a whopping 204.3 per cent, up from just 30 megawatts in 2009."
According to iSuppli, this new technology is highly "chip intensive" and relies on computing power to a degree that invites comparison with Silicon Valley's microchip culture.
Some industry watchers now believe that technology being deployed in PV solar panels will fuel the kind of growth already witnessed in information technology.
"Because of their capability to bring the beneficial dynamics of Moore's Law to the solar market, global shipments of photovoltaic MLPM systems are set to explode during the coming years," says Mr Sheppard.
But other industry sources believe the explosion will be a controlled one taking place over the next decade or two, gradually transforming the solar power industry into an energy giant.
Keith Harrison, the research director for energy and utilities at the research company Gartner, believes the transformation of the solar energy industry will happen more slowly than the application of Moore's Law.
"Cell efficiency is a good measure of performance improvements. In the case of PV solar cells, average cell efficiencies in 2008 were around 13 per cent and today are in the region of 16 per cent. By 2014, efficiency is predicted to rise to 18 per cent to 19 per cent. Average cell efficiency growth of 1 per cent a year does not sound like Moore's Law," he says.
Mr Harrison nevertheless believes, in terms of investment, solar panels will soon come closer to attracting the level of investment powering more popular forms of renewable energy.
"According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), between 2010 and 2035 global investment in renewable energy will be US$5.7 trillion [Dh20.93tn]. During this period, over a trillion dollars will be invested in PV. Over the same period [2010-2035], $1.8tn will be invested in wind energy," he says.
Much of the investment in PV solar panels will be made in the Middle East due to the region's climate and geography.
"The solar value of the Middle East is very high. Given the strong and reliable sunshine, suitable locations for PV and concentrated solar deployments are easy to find," says Mr Harrison.
New techniques such as concentrated solar energy also favour open, sun-drenched locations such as the deserts of the Middle East.
"Another form of solar energy is concentrated solar energy, which looks like something from a James Bond movie. Mirrors are used to reflect and concentrate the power of the sun, using the heat produced to generate electricity," he says.
Solar panels can also be deployed in Middle Eastern urban locations where wind turbine farms might be considered unsuitable because of the noise they make.
"Solar panels can be deployed in locations where wind turbines would be unacceptable as a result of noise or environmental concerns. Additionally, land-based locations with an adequate wind supply are increasingly difficult to find," says Mr Harrison.
"Much of the investment will be channelled into solar panels deployed on a relatively small scale in urban environments. The IEA estimates that $99 billion will be invested globally in large scale PV deployment between 2010 and 2020. In the same period, it is estimated that $212bn will be spent in installing solar PV in buildings."
Industry watchers believe the huge infusion of cash into PV will be fuelled by technical cost-saving improvements that will bring energy prices into line with other forms of renewable energy.
"Generating costs are a useful way of comparing different generation technologies. At the moment, according to the IEA, it costs, on average, $360 to generate a megawatt hour of power output using PV panels versus $90 for on-shore wind energy," Mr Harrison says.
But, according to the IEA, this situation is set to change dramatically with solar energy costs reducing to a level much closer to that of wind power, further driving market growth.
"The price of PV generated energy is set to fall. By 2035, the IEA estimates that it will cost only $130, having previously fallen to $220 by 2020. This represents the largest drop in generating costs of all current renewable generation types and will make PV power far more competitive with wind energy than is the case today," Mr Harrison says.
This fall in costs is being driven by technological advances no less remarkable than the advances made in recent years in microchip technologies.
"Rather than reducing costs the way microchips do - by becoming smaller and faster - PV systems historically have achieved the 'cheaper' part of the equation by delivering on the three efficiencies of solar technology: efficient energy conversion; efficient manufacturing methods; and efficient use of materials," says Mr Harrison.
But whether these advances can really be translated into a new version of Moore's Law is less relevant than the huge impact of the new trillion-dollar solar energy industry is set to have on regions such as the Middle East.
The new generation of solar energy technology will provide a huge boost to the construction industry as new development takes place in countries such as the UAE. Other new business opportunities will be created by the creation of much larger solar energy facilities in less populated locations.