Economic slowdown delays solar panel plant

Work on Dubai's first plant producing solar panels has been delayed by more than a year but experts remain optimistic over long-term prospects.

Work on Dubai's first plant producing solar panels has been delayed by more than a year. But despite the wait, experts say the UAE remains well-positioned to become a major player in the industry. The project, by Dubai-based Solar Technologies, was to be built in Techno Park with work on the facility scheduled to begin in November 2008.

But 15 months later, construction on what was billed as the Middle East's largest facility of its kind has yet to begin. Despite the announced delay, the company remains committed to the project, according a statement sent to The National. "The promoters of Solar Technologies LLC have taken a joint decision to defer the project by a couple of months due to the current economic climate," it said. "We must reiterate that the promoters remain committed to the project and [it] is of high priority to us. We are certain and are working towards ensuring that the construction work of the project gets under way soon."

The project was unveiled in October 2008 during the Green Dubai World Forum 2008, a high-profile conference held at Atlantis, The Palm. The plant was to produce solar panels that could be integrated into the design of buildings in roofs, skylights and façades to produce electricity. The first phase of the project was to have begun production late this year, producing a total of 130 megawatts (mw) of energy annually from solar panels.

Dilip Rahulan, chairman and chief executive of Solar Technologies, said at the time that the company would target the Middle East market. The plant was to produce photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight to electricity using "thin-film" technology. This type of module uses less silicon and specialised semi-conductive materials applied to glass, making it cheaper to produce. Masdar, the Abu Dhabi clean energy company, has also invested in thin-film technology. Masdar PV, the solar-panel manufacturing arm of the company, has a plant in Ichtershausen, Germany, which opened last year and is scheduled to produce panels with a total capacity of 30mw this year.

In December, the company was scheduled to begin work on a similar factory in Abu Dhabi. Last month, however, the company said the project in Taweelah, north of Abu Dhabi city, had been delayed. The company said lack of government support prompted the decision. Christian von Tschirschky, principal and head of utilities Middle East and North Africa for the global-management consultancy AT Kearney, said that despite the delays, the future of solar energy in the UAE is bright.

"I see this only as a temporary setback. It is not a refocusing away from the solar story," Mr von Tschirschky said. "Solar power is one of the top priorities, together with nuclear." Dr Lana el Chaar, assistant professor at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, agreed. "This will not much delay the use of solar energy here," she said. Both Mr von Tschirschky and Dr el Chaar said that the UAE had good potential to utilise solar energy, provided there is government support.

Last year, Abu Dhabi announced a target of generating seven per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Plans on how that will be achieved have not been announced. AT Kearney has projected that the Middle East can profit significantly from solar energy. Using only concentrated solar power, which uses solar heat to produce electricity, the region can reach a capacity of 9,000mw by 2020. To put that into perspective, Dubai's entire current power-generating capacity is 5,500mw.

With such large opportunities for growth, Mr von Tschirschky said, "it is a question of who provides the region with the needed equipment". "It makes sense that the region invests in capacities to produce those modules here," he said. "I expect there will be a push in this direction. It all depends on the overall regulations. Currently, there are no regulations. But we expect this to come in the next one or two years."