For the five billion years that our sun has existed, so has solar power. Naturally, our Earth has, ever since its inception some 4.7bn years ago, relied on the sun’s energy. While humans have not been around that long, we too have always relied on the sun. Today, however, we seem to have forgotten the power and significance of this elementary cosmological principle. It is time to remember it.
Relatively speaking, we have only recently found a viable and affordable way to convert solar power into electricity. In this sense, solar has been playing catch-up to the more expedient forms of energy that we have used to heat our homes, fuel our transport systems and power industry and manufacturing in the wake of the industrial revolution. But it has caught up. And it’s time to embrace the modernisation of our innately heliocentric ways.
We need only look at the history of our natural world and its current trajectory to see why. As anyone who has seen David Attenborough's most recent Netflix documentary, A Life on Our Planet, will know that our plants capture 3 trillion kilowatt hours of solar energy each day – that's almost 20 times the energy we need to live, from sunlight alone.
So why are we looking elsewhere for our energy, when everything we need is already beaming down on us every day?
The answer lies in aligning the financial demands of a globalised world predicated on capitalist models with the needs of the planet. Only when it makes financial sense for investors and venture capitalists will renewable energies, such as solar, become desirable as well as essential.
In this sense, we must find a way to make solar power a currency in its own right. A commodity that is cherished and valued in the same way that fossil fuels and money have been. We have already seen this new kind of currency emerging in the form of Renewable Energy Credits (REC), a system enabled by blockchain technologies that has begun to clearly show the intrinsic value of renewables. To do this, we need to turn the attention of our banks, private equity and venture capital firms to solar.
If we do not take a proactive approach to pitching the benefits of solar to investors, we will lose more of our biodiversity, our climate will grow ever more volatile and our public health, particularly for those who live in cities, will be taken to the precipice. Generating wealth is useful for economic development and social mobility. But what use will that money be if its source is jeopardising the very future it is being saved for?
This point is particularly pertinent in light of a recent Irena report, published in early November that claimed that institutional investors – sitting on an estimated $87tn of global assets – supplied just 2 per cent of investment for renewables in 2017 and 2018.
But the momentum is there. Indeed, European Investment Bank president, Werner Hoyer, said recently at the Finance in Common Summit that diversifying investments into renewable energy sources to curtail planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions is “not only a question of political wishful thinking, but also good economics”. At the same summit, the world’s public development banks pledged to align their investments with the Paris Agreement on climate change. They did not, however, offer any stance on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.
Knowing solar to be integral to the future we need to build and invest in, the UAE was an early adopter of the power and potential of solar. Guided by the nation’s 2050 Energy Strategy, we have made great strides in our journey to put the sun back at the centre of our world; a point exemplified with two recent examples.
In May 2020, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority awarded the 900MW photovoltaic fifth phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park to a consortium led by ACWA Power. The consortium’s winning tariff of $1.7/kWh setting was at the time a new global benchmark for solar energy. Then, two months later, the 2GW Al Dhafra solar project in Abu Dhabi was awarded to a French-Chinese bidder consortium of EDF Renewables and Jinko Power Technology Co, Ltd at a bid of $1.35 per kilowatt-hour, setting a new global benchmark.
This means that solar energy is no longer just a competitive option. It is now the most affordable and goes a long way to fulfilling the promise that renewable energy sources will eventually become the most cost-effective means of energy production. And in the days ahead, as we build back better from the coronavirus pandemic fallout, we have a chance to restructure our economies with solar at the centre.
Economic analysts surveyed in a Reuters poll suggested that the GCC states will begin to rebound and rebuild in 2021, having been hit particularly hard by Covid-19’s impact on oil demand and prices.
As further context, a 2019 S&P report warned that the Middle East’s solar ambitions could burn out early due to “slowing energy demand growth” and an uncertain economic outlook that has seen investors to holding back. Indeed, according to S&P’s Global Platts Analytics, annual Middle East power demand will grow by an average 2.3 per cent over the next five years, down from 3.4 per cent for 2013 to 2018.
Yet, this is no reason to think that solar cannot cover this decrease in demand. On the contrary, as we witnessed from many nations including the UK, Germany and France, during the peak of the pandemic, when overall energy consumption levels plummeted, solar and other renewable sources stepped in to offer a more cost-effective option for maintaining the grid at a time when demand reached its nadir.
In the next 20 years, renewables are expected to become the world’s main source of power. And if, like the earliest human civilisations that positioned their buildings to face south to gather heat and light, we embrace solar architecture, we can begin to return our planet to its natural balance. And unlike other forms of energy, this kind will never run out.
Dr Nawal Al-Hosany is a permanent representative of the UAE to the International Renewable Energy Agency