Meet the agents of change: Dr Nabih Cherradi

Dr Nabih Cherradi is CTO at  Desert Technologies and President of Solar United. He explores the current renewables landscape and opportunities for Middle East nations

You’ve stated that commitment to the adoption of new energies is ‘an obligation not an option’. In a region with diverse energy needs and investment, how can we inspire governments, private sector investors and end users to truly commit to effecting change?

Energy is a key economic driver for the region and there are two issues that urgently need to be addressed. 

The first is strategic action linked to energy resilience. It is imperative that governments and nations have full control of energy production. A comprehensive strategy needs to be in place to ensure a stable and reliable energy supply, supported by an emergency plan that can be swiftly implemented in response to disruptive events. 

The second consideration is the environment. The harsh reality of continued use of fossil fuels will be a failure to achieve net zero. These twin issues are the fundamental motivators for the adoption of renewable energy alternatives. 

Governments must introduce strict regulations paired with attractive incentives to accelerate public and private sector development and deployment. 

With three decades of international project experience, from your perspective, which countries in the Middle East are driving the biggest change and which projects are future gamechangers?

The region has announced a raft of ambitious large-scale projects over the last decade or so with the UAE the deployment frontrunner.

The largest country in the region, Saudi Arabia has the greatest potential for renewables implementation, and for solar in particular. It was actually the first country in the region to explore solar potential with the 1977 inauguration of the Saudi Solar Village Project near Riyadh, which generated around 350-kilowatt peak (kWp) power. 

It wasn’t until the popularisation of solar in mid-2005 that Middle East nations began to talk seriously about deployment. In 2007, Abu Dhabi launched its first 10-megawatt peak (MWp) tender with Jordan the second country in the region to announce a first-round project tender in 2012. At the time, feed-in tariffs (FITs) were the norm and the project attracted huge investment across two rounds. 

Dubai followed Abu Dhabi’s lead with a number of different utility-scale projects and rooftop installation programmes. In 2012, Saudi Arabia launched the KACARE programme with 58-gigawatt capacity, and the establishment of the Renewable Energy Project Development Office (REPDO) in 2016, initiated the first round of a 300 MW solar project, since when three further rounds have been launched.

How are disruptive technologies in the solar sector positively impacting change? Please share regional examples.

Advancements in renewables technology are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. There is no breakthrough technology currently and, even if this was the case, it would take at least 10 years for it to be accepted by the market and become bankable. 

Nowadays, we have global market access to a host of mature, proven and advanced technologies. Solar, wind, geothermal or hydro: there are technology solutions readily available for deployment. 

Renewables technologies are constantly evolving, and the industry globally has grown exponentially since 2005. At the start of the millennium, total worldwide production capacity was around 300 MW. Today, production capacity exceeds 300 GW. 

This rapid advancement has been the catalyst for research and development projects that have played a major role in accelerating technological capabilities. 

If we look at solar intermittency specifically, batteries and storage are both well-developed aspects. Costs have also drastically reduced as a result of improved technology. 

As an example, in Saudi Arabia the cost of conventional power is 18 halala, which is equivalent to $0.045, while the latest renewables project awarded in the Kingdom was priced at $0.014.Future technological changes could see this drop down to just $0.01. 

However, the issue of how to better finance projects and further open market access needs to be brought to the table, with the Middle East’s power market largely government company controlled.

How can we harness intermittent energy sources to support reliable energy provision and where are we seeing this happen in the region?

Harnessing intermittent energy sources to support reliable energy provision could be achieved through storage. The current cost of solar batteries mirrors what happened on the solar panel deployment journey, which saw prices drop by 90 per cent. In the last five years, the cost of batteries has reduced by over 50 per cent, and this is just the beginning. 

The technology is developing extremely quickly with advancement in some solid-state technologies and super capacitors a good example. That said, the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) should also be kept low by mitigating current fossil fuel usage and using solar energy during daylight hours then switching back at night. This could garner huge savings in Middle East countries.

Through your expertise and the work you do at Desert Technologies, what are the most exciting developments under way in your field – or in the pipeline – that you are confident will impact the near future of renewables?

The most exciting development currently is growing awareness of the need to develop the industry locally. If we want to gain energy independency and ensure energy stability, it’s imperative to control the production tools. 

For example, while the region is energy independent there is no real production capability for solar panel manufacturing. This is unacceptable and a significant strategic risk, yet the relevant technology could be directly acquired, supported by the purchase of off-the-shelf standard production facilities. 

The photovoltaic (PV) panel industry’s shift to manufacturing bases in China and Southeast Asia and resulting low (government supported) module prices has seen China gain control of over 83 per cent of total value chain production globally, and 98 per cent of wafer production. This clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of the solar value chain and makes its problems harder to solve.

In India, a successful production-linked incentive scheme initiated by Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, aims to encourage solar PV and battery manufacturing. In a single decade, India has grown to become the second biggest producer after China. 

Europe is currently developing programmes such as the Fit for 55 package and REPowerEU plan through the Green Deal mechanism, to re-energise the solar industry. 

And, in the US, the 2022 signing of the new Inflation Reduction Act represents the most efficient tool and mechanism for future industry development. 

There are big dividends for countries that get their clean energy industrial strategies right. Project developers and investors are waiting for policies that will give them a competitive edge in different markets.

Regulatory frameworks are an integral part of the long-term adoption process. What regulatory foundations are required to advance clean energy adoption in the region – across the entire stakeholder ecosystem?

Development of a comprehensive regulatory framework to advance energy adoption and deployment in the region needs to begin with development of the industry itself. 

The best way to do this, in my opinion, would be to implement a regionally relevant programme similar to the US Inflation Reduction Act. This would open up the electricity market, which is under complete government control with all utility companies state-owned.