Sound policy, not just science, for our energy future

Countries in the region are still missing out on much of what renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind can offer them.

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As the fourth World Future Energy Summit gets underway in Abu Dhabi later this week, the delegates will be debating plans for diversifying the world's energy supply.

They should also discuss the available options for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as itwitnesses numerousinitiativesattempting to diversify its energy landscape.However, theimpact of new policies to develop renewable energy sources, civilian nuclear power andenergy efficiency remain to be seen. Looking back over the past five years, the picture remains fragmented.

With vast, non-inhabited areas of land and some of the world's highest levels of solar radiation per year, MENA countries are still missingout on much of whatrenewable sources such as solar and wind can offer them. It is true that several projects are being developed or planned in the region. Among them are large-scale renewable energy cities in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which will depend on solar and wind.

But despite the growing interest in large solar installations, the overwhelming share ofthese projects rely on wind, such as Africa's "largest wind farm" in Melloussa, near the Moroccan city of Tangier. This is due to the fact that wind technology remains considerably cheaper than solar. But small-scale solar installations, such as solar water heaters, are spreading across the regionas governments implement policies supporting their use.

Several countries are exploring the possibilityof nuclear power for electricity generation. This choice reflects the need for large-scale capacity, which is required for water desalination, for instance. The need to sustain water desalination is a widespread issue in the Gulf. Exploring nuclear power for electricity generation also echoes a low-carbon emission profile.

But the geopolitical implications associated with the development of civil nuclear programmes are considerable given the risks in the region. The high initial cost of investment, lengthy legislative and regulatory requirements, as well as the lack of local technological know-how, will also delay nuclear technology development.

The UAE is the most advanced in this respect, awarding its first nuclear power plant construction contract to a Korean-led consortium. The Emirateswas also electedto the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency last year.

Jordan, having the advantage of uranium reserves on its territory, is reconsidering the location for its nuclear power plant, which is planned for 2020. Egypt plans to build four nuclear power plants by 2025 and in Saudi Arabia the preparation of the necessary legal and regulatory frameworks is underway with the establishment of the King Abdullah Renewable and Nuclear Energy City.

In a region with one of the world's highest levels of energy consumption per capita, consuming less energy could create considerable financial and environmental benefits, estimated by the World Bank at $6 billion to $23 billion for energy efficiency improvements of 10 to 50 percent. But reversing the trend of high-energy consumption requires both a change in political mentality and public opinion.

ConsiderTunisia, whichreduced its energy usage by an average of 2per cent per year over the last two decades through an ambitious energy efficiency programme.The possible impact of similar measures in the region is still underestimated. And while policies supporting energy efficiency are being developed in the Arab countries of the Mediterranean, the Gulf countries, with the exception of the UAE, still lag behind.

The success or failure ofcountries in the region to diversify their energy supply in favour of low-carbon solutions will depend on their capacity to tackle several challenges. First, each countryneeds a long-term, nationalenergy visionbased on a reliable energy supply and demand projection.

Secondly, appropriate legislative and regulatory frameworks, whether for renewable, nuclear energy or energy efficiency, need to be developed. They are essential for creating an attractive business climate for new industry sectors and drawing the necessary investment.

Third, acquiring the right energy technologies and developing local know-how is crucial. Creating new partnerships with leaders in industry requires a local base, which could contribute long term to creating new sectors of the regional economy.

Finally, government-subsidiesfor energy are widespread throughout the region and remain a major obstacle for progress towards energy diversification. This heritage of the hydrocarbon-based economic model does not motivate individuals or businesses to consume less energy or to favour the use of cleaner energy sources.

The transformation of the current system into a focused strategyof state-supported,low-carbon energy sources and rationalised energy use, will be the key element for the success of energy and larger economic diversification in the Middle East and North Africa. This should be one of the key issues for discussion at Abu Dhabi's summit.

Katarina Uherova-Hasbani is an energy consultant for the MENA region. The article represents the personal views of the author