Electricity generation from renewable energy has grown significantly in recent years due to falling technology costs and supportive government policies. At the global level, 61 per cent of all electricity generation capacity added worldwide in 2017 was from renewable energy, excluding large hydro projects. 

In the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, the case for renewable electricity is strong, given the excellent solar and wind resources and power generation capacity that is expected to grow at about 6 per cent through the early part of the coming decade. 

Mena’s renewable electricity

Despite such potential, Mena’s renewable electricity has to date been meagre, with total non-hydro capacity standing at less than 6GW, which is less than 2 per cent of the region’s total electricity generation capacity. In addition, the rate at which new renewable electricity capacity is being deployed in the region lags behind the global trend. In 2017, less than 6 per cent of new regional electricity generation capacity came from renewable energy technologies.

Utility-scale projects

While Mena’s progress in renewable electricity has been slow by international standards, the region has set global trends in the cost of utility-scale renewable electricity.

In 2015, Dubai Electricity & Water Authority awarded a 25-year, utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) power-purchase agreement to deliver electricity at a then-record-low unsubsidised tariff of 5.84 $cents a kilowatt hour ($c/kWh) for phase 2 of the Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (MBR) solar park. 

Since then, the price discovery mechanism of renewable electricity auctions has pushed regional solar and wind tariffs to less than 3 $c/kWh for utility-scale projects that will be completed before 2020.

With such commercial viability having been demonstrated, the renewable electricity targets of countries across the region may now be realised. 

Building capacity 

The region’s ambitious renewable electricity plans include the UAE’s target of 44 per cent by 2050, Egypt’s targets of 20 per cent by 2022 and 42 per cent by 2035, Morocco’s targets of 42 per cent by 2020 and 52 per cent by 2030, Algeria’s target of 37 per cent by 2030 and Tunisia’s target of 30 per cent by 2030.

Although Saudi Arabia announced a plan in 2013 for 54GW of renewable electricity capacity by 2030, the kingdom now has a more realistic target of 9.5GW by 2023, equating to about 10 per cent of the country’s total electricity generation capacity in that year. 

The true state of regional renewable electricity is best determined from actual projects. At present, Jordan is the regional leader in solar power with 529MW of capacity deployed. By 2020, however, the UAE will become the regional solar leader when nearly 3,000MW of new solar PV and concentrated solar power capacity comes online from the MBR Solar Park and Abu Dhabi’s Sweihan project. 

Solar power in Saudi Arabia is expected to ramp up with the 300MW Sakaka solar PV project that has been awarded at a low tariff of 2.34 $c/kWh.

Oman has also made its move toward solar power with Petroleum Development Oman awarding a 100MW solar PV project that will be the world’s first utility-scale solar project to have an oil and gas company as the sole electricity buyer. 

In terms of wind power, Morocco is currently the regional leader and had deployed about 1,000MW of wind power capacity by the end of 2017. An additional 1,120MW of capacity is expected by 2020. 

Egypt, which is second to Morocco, may ultimately take the top spot if its integrated sustainable energy strategy projections prove correct. The strategy calls for more than 20,000MW of wind power capacity by 2035. This is a significant increase from the nearly 1,500MW of operational wind power capacity that Egypt is expected to have by 2020 based on current installations and the pipeline of awarded projects. 

Regional outlook 

While renewable electricity in the Mena region has been slow to develop, in the coming decades several regional countries may actually need to adjust their electricity system operations and deploy new technologies to accommodate high shares of intermittent solar PV and wind power. When the share of electricity from intermittent sources exceeds 10-15 per cent, electricity system flexibility measures will need to be taken. 

While there are many options for achieving electricity system flexibility – including measures pertaining to the supply side, the demand side, energy storage and grid infrastructure – the appropriate mix of options is context dependent. Mena countries with lofty renewable electricity aspirations will therefore need to begin planning their research and development efforts now to ensure a smooth electricity system transition.

 About the author

Steven Griffiths is senior vice-president of research and development and professor of practice at Khalifa University of Science & TechnologySteven Griffiths is senior vice-president of research and development and professor of practice at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University of Science & Technology

More from this month’s Agenda
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Comment: Solar and wind power spearhead the future of energy
Infographic: Renewables investment soars amid falling costs