How important is the Middle East to First Solar’s business?

The Middle East, including Egypt, is a key market for us. We are committed to growing our business in the region and, in turn, to enabling the region’s solar ambitions. We see opportunities in excess of 1,000MW across the market and we plan to pursue these aggressively. Due to an abundance of solar irradiance and a strong political will to embrace solar energy, the Middle East is a critical component of our growth strategy.

How has First Solar found working in the Middle East?

The engineering and construction of the 13MW first phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Solar Park [Dubai’s first solar plant] gave us the opportunity to apply our global experience to regional conditions.

First Solar has signed a contract to build the Shams Maan photovoltaic (PV) solar power plant in Jordan. How important is Jordan’s renewables market to First Solar’s strategy?

We see the 52.5MW Shams Maan solar power plant as an opportunity to continue to demonstrate our vertically integrated strength in the region. Our involvement is not limited to providing engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) and operations and maintenance services. We worked closely with our partners, including Jordan’s Kawar Group, to develop the project, leveraging our global expertise and technology platform to help it evolve from a concept to a bankable energy asset that has attracted foreign investors to the country.

A series of recent technology innovations have made solar more economical and reliable than ever before

Ahmed Nada, First Solar

First Solar sees strong and sustainable potential in Jordan, driven primarily by the kingdom’s strategy to shape a future based on energy independence. It is this strategy that has resulted in the country leading the way and establishing the right milestones for the independent production of energy in the region.

Which markets is First Solar keeping an eye on in the Middle East?

We have had a presence in the UAE since 2009, when our modules were selected to power part of Masdar City’s pilot PV plant. Following that, in 2012, Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (Dewa) selected First Solar to provide EPC services and our advanced thin film modules for the 13MW first phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum solar park in Dubai.

Jordan is also a critical market due to the government’s energy independence strategy, and we are looking forward to delivering a world-class project there. Apart from the UAE and Jordan, Saudi Arabia is an important market, having already announced plans to install 41GW of solar power over the next 20 years. We are also looking at Egypt with a great deal of interest, as the country has set a goal of generating 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

We continue to believe in the Middle East’s potential and are actively pursuing opportunities across multiple markets in the region. 

Has First Solar noticed a move towards PV from concentrated solar power (CSP) as costs have come down?

Worldwide, there are currently more than 2GW of permitted CSP projects that are being re-permitted to have the sites converted to PV. This indicates that PV is extremely price competitive, not only with CSP but also with certain traditional fuels. Our customers, including Dewa, benefit from investing in PV in a range of ways, including lower costs, minimal water usage, better performance in diffused light environments, lower operating expenses and much more.

Having said that, First Solar does not advocate doing away with one technology to make way for the other; solar power should form part of a comprehensive power generation portfolio, which includes a combination of conventional and renewable resources. PV technology is versatile enough to be utilised in hybrid mode, in conjunction with traditional energy sources, to ensure grid stability.

Is solar becoming competitive against traditional forms of power generation?

We are seeing a global transition from fossil fuels to renewables, centred on the growing realisation that renewables – in particular solar – are no longer a subsidy-enabled option. What is significant is that demand is motivated by market realities, such as cost competitiveness with conventional fuels.

The numbers speak for themselves: in 2000, the total solar PV capacity installed globally was about 1.5GW; less than 15 years later, First Solar alone has more than six times that installed worldwide. The emergence of solar as a key part of the energy generation conversation can be attributed in part to the fact that a series of recent technology innovations have made solar more economical and reliable than ever before.

When examined from a levelised cost of electricity perspective – a holistic view of the total cost of ownership from project development and financing through operations and maintenance over the plant’s operational life – solar is proven to be cost competitive with a wide range of conventional generation sources.

What challenges must countries in the Middle East overcome to achieve their solar energy targets?

The Middle East shows considerable potential for solar energy generation and utilisation, yet the industry has grown at a slower-than-expected rate. There are various reasons for this, including a historical reliance on oil and gas and an evolving regulatory framework. The industry can also find it challenging to obtain local financing for solar projects, although we have seen a definite shift on this front over the past 12 months.