Qatar’s first solar power technology testing facility
As part of Qatar’s ongoing drive towards energy efficiency, in early December 2012 international energy firm Chevron and Qatari renewable energy company GreenGulf will inaugurate their Solar Test Facility, a long-awaited joint venture to test and evaluate current and emerging solar technologies at the Qatar Science and Technology Park. TheEDGE spoke exclusively to Carl Atallah, president of Chevron Qatar Limited, about how the facility came to be, what it hopes to achieve, and how it might contribute to this small but sun washed Gulf state’s potential to become a future hub for solar energy production and industry.
The process that led to the inception of this facility, Carl Atallah reveals, began when Chevron signed an agreement with local authorities to locate its Centre for Sustainable Energy Efficiency (CSEE) at the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) in Doha in early 2009. “HE Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah was instrumental in Chevron establishing the CSEE with the support of Qatar energy minister, HE Dr. Mohammed bin Saleh Al Sada, who inaugurated the centre when it officially opened in 2011,” says Atallah.
Focusing on showing to students, professional and officials how energy is consumed and how it can be done efficiently, the raison d’etre of the centre, explains Atallah, was a combination of motivation from these ministers, and all involved in the Qatari energy sector, realising that much energy is wasted in the production and generation of power from hydrocarbons. It was also down to the fact, he says, that “at Chevron we believe that energy efficiency is the most readily available and cheapest form of energy for both energy importing and exporting countries alike.”
Atallah explains that more than two decades ago Chevron embarked on an internal audit to transform how energy was utilised within their own facilities. “We began to make changes in our own operations around the world, and that has resulted in a reduction of energy consumption of more than 30 percent,” he tells TheEDGE. “At the same time the company doubled in size, so it is a huge impact in terms of energy consumption…about US$7 billion (QR26 billion) a year savings for Chevron globally. That is a huge economic benefit, but it is also a huge impact on cutting our own carbon footprint.”
AN UNTAPPED RESOURCE
In regions well endowed with hydrocarbon resources such the Middle East, this cost saving approach to energy efficiency has not been a priority, says Atallah. However, the awareness that these resources are finite – and that production and consumption of energy can be achieved more energy efficiently and environmentally friendlier – prompted the Qatari authorities to pursue ways to improve the situation.
One such avenue eventually led to the formation of the CSEE, and ultimately the Solar Test Facility. In 2009, Qatari GreenGulf CEO Omran Al Kuwari had pitched the idea of establishing a solar test facility at QSTP. In March 2009, the project was announced under the patronage of HH Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chairperson of Qatar Foundation. In that same year, GreenGulf’s Corporate Research Agreement with QSTP was signed to move the project forward. With the support and guidance of QSTP, GreenGulf and Chevron agreed to develop the Solar Test Facility jointly and in 2010, both entities signed a Joint Study Agreement to develop and operate the QSTP Solar Test Facility.
“Since we started this project, the National Vision from HH the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has provided a platform for a discussion in renewable energy, because of his vision to make Qatar more sustainable,” says Atallah. “On the consumption side, cutting wasteful consumption of energy, in other words improving energy efficiency, is one important factor. On the energy generation side, Qatar receives some of the highest solar radiation in the world, so solar energy may prove to be a significant contributor to the energy mix in the future.”
But before investing in solar, explains Atallah, the technologies used to generate this form of energy in the Middle East must be accurately assessed. “How efficient is generating solar power under the harsh climatic conditions present in this region? is a question that must be answered,” he says.
Only the new facility can achieve this. It will be included among a small number of similar projects, all of which are in the United States (US), where Chevron has three sister sites in different environments: two in California and one in New Mexico. Set to become Chevron’s most comprehensive, the Doha Solar Test Facility will become a pivotal phase in the development and construction of solar power technology in the region, especially in determining which of these can withstand the rigours of exposure to the heat, humidity and dust common in the Arabian Gulf.
Phase one of the Qatar facility, says Atallah, involved the installation of 20 photovoltaic cell solar power technologies, and in the very recently completed phase, 10 solar thermal technologies. “Photovoltaic basically takes the radiation from the sun and converts that directly into electricity,” he clarifies. “The solar panels start to generate electricity as soon as the sun hits them. Whereas, with solar thermal, the sun is concentrated by mirrors into a tube of water or other liquids to generate steam or heat the liquid, and then the energy from the hot liquid is used to generate electricity, or it is applied directly for water heating, air conditioning and other applications.”
THE ULTIMATE TEST
“What we are testing,” continues Atallah, “is commercial and near-commercial technologies that are readily available in the market with the understanding that not all solar technologies are created equal. We aim to identify those technologies that will be most efficient and cost effective in the environment of Qatar. Some technologies may be more affected by the heat, while others may be less efficient under the sandy and dusty conditions so prevalent in this region.”
The humidity, adds Atallah, will also be taken into serious consideration. “This is a big factor,” he confirms, “and I feel confident that we will identify those technologies that can perform most optimally in this environment. We will be testing other elements as well, including the installation process to identify ways to expedite it, coating fluid, washing techniques, etcetera – all items that contribute to costs, because each of these components add cost, so maximising efficiency of all these components can improve the competitiveness of solar power.”
Even the angle of the sun through the day will factor in, including panels that follow the sun through its daily arc on single and double axles, as well as how the energy generated is stored in batteries and which types are the most efficient, will be included in the equation.
How these technologies perform during different times of the day and in each season will also be part of the evaluation process at the facility. “We have modelled the local conditions and we know that power generation not only decreases in the winter relative to the summer, but also power output changes during day with the location of the sun in the sky,” furthers Atallah. “There are definite variations, and those are the challenges that have to be addressed – how do the variations affect the grid, etcetera? – as managing that grid is an important factor as well.”
Ultimately, the most cost effective means of generating solar power will win out. This might not be the cheapest to produce or the cheapest in generating power, says Atallah, but it will be the overall most efficient and cost effective technology. This of course is sound logic strictly in a business sense, but he adds, it is especially pertinent for Qatar in the approach to the FIFA World Cup in 2022.
“This becomes very critical information for Qatar given the scale of the plans for solar power in the country,” Atallah says of the latter. “For example, FIFA has a requirement of 27 degrees Celsius on the pitch at the time of the games. As you know, summer temperatures here can reach high 40s. It will require a great deal of cooperation between all the companies working, and our knowledge and experience in optimising solar technologies for the Qatari environment should have great value and play an important role in ensuring the country achieves success in hosting a carbon neutral world cup.”
Thanks to advances in the technology in their manufacture, solar power-generating silicon photovoltaic cells have only in the past few years become much more cost effective to produce. As the price of solar power is central to the ongoing development of the technologies it employs, as well as in turn the very existence of the Solar Test Facility, Atallah then explains how the project has also been fortuitous due to the high oil price in recent years, making solar increasingly competitive with traditional hydrocarbon energy.
“It is linked to the price of a competing fossil fuel,” Atallah affirms. “When the price of the fossil fuel is low, solar energy becomes less competitive. At current price levels of near US$100 (QR364) per barrel, renewable energy is more competitive. In this region renewable energy is less competitive obviously because fossil fuels are sold in the local market, in effect, subsidised [but] this is the relevance in Qatar of the Emir’s 2030 vision.”
Indeed, while Atallah agrees that solar technology is generally a medium- to long-term investment, one that might not reap dividends for years, even decades, assessing exactly what this cost versus revenue time frame might be also depends on the location and market dynamics at play. “In certain cases and certain areas it would be more expensive,” he says, “it depends on what you are competing against. In Germany where energy is expensive, solar competes fairly well even though the sun doesn’t shine as much. Conversely, in Qatar where there is plentiful gas, it is more challenging to make solar power competitive, but obviously the Qatari government is setting the requirement to increase renewables in the energy mix.”
In a broader commercial sense, the facility will operate on different levels, informs Atallah. To begin with, of the thirty or so technologies being deployed at the facility, from companies all around the world, including Germany, China, Japan, the US and Korea to name just a few, some have donated the equipment to test in exchange for return of data and others have sold the equipment to the facility. “Everybody has different approaches and requirements so it has been a very complex negotiation process,” explains Atallah. “It has taken us about a year to get to this point, and as of today we still have one or two companies with which we are still in negotiations.
“We will provide information to those companies that donated the panels as per the agreement,” Atallah continues. “The information they will receive is strictly related to their performance in this environment, not compared to others in the test. We will hold the information of what works best in this environment as this information is proprietary.” Though Chevron and Green Gulf will not develop any of these technologies themselves, Atallah then points out, once optimum technologies have been determined Chevron, which he says is one of the largest installers of solar energy in California, is looking into doing the same here. “We are evaluating whether our business model can be applied in Qatar and the results obtained at the solar test site should help us find an answer,” he explains. “It provides us with an important technical advantage and provides a very interesting opportunity in growing with the solar business in Qatar and elsewhere in the region.”
Though this whole process is somewhat of a closed entity at present – at least to further businesses seeking to become involved in whatever guise – thanks to 2022 infrastructure projects, Atallah believes this may open up in the future. “At this time, we are conducting research and participating in a couple of small scale solar commercial opportunities,” he says. “There are still too few opportunities to define a business model, but we are hopeful that opportunities will grow in the medium to long term.”
Qatar Solar Test Facility Quick Facts
The test site, located at QSTP is 35,000 square metres.
It has 200 kilowatts of photovoltaic and thermal systems respectively.
It is a secure site with LEED Silver certified workshop and buildings.
Electricity be will used to power the site with excess going to Qatar Foundation.
Testing will commence in late 2012 and into 2013.
A SOLAR QATAR
Qatar, Atallah agrees, is certainly positioning itself well to become a regional hub for the development, manufacture and export of solar power and related technology. Beyond the test facility, unrelated collaborations involving the production of photovoltaic cells by Qatari companies such as Qatar Solar Technologies (QSTec) at QSTP (see box out) and further initiatives by the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), bode well for growth in this sector overall.
However, Atallah offers a few caveats to this seemingly bright future. First he says that young Qataris must be developed to ensure available local human resources and second, local companies must continually adapt to keep pace. “We have a programme of internship for students, and this past summer we had three interns from Qatar University and Texas A&M. We think that it is very important to build organisational capability and to provide opportunity for students. It is encouraging to see that there is a good level of interest in the renewable energy field from the students graduating in Qatar. If Qatar is to become a centre for the export of these technologies and know-how then developing human resources is a critical process. Regarding exporting solar technology, it is too early to speculate at this stage. At the end of the day it all boils down to how competitively Qatar can produce solar technology.
“Solar technologies are evolving quickly, and in this dynamic environment bankruptcies are common as you can see from some news reports recently,” adds Atallah, citing the failure of the high profile Solyndra in California as a prime example. “Competition is high, change is rapid and there are companies in various countries that are able to do things better, cheaper, etcetera. In any new technology, change happens fast, and companies have to innovate to stay in business. It is a challenge for all in the field, not just for Qatar.”
Through its facility here, however, Atallah says Chevron is primed to contribute meaningfully to Qatar’s presence in the global solar energy paradigm. “The test facility provides us with the opportunity to keep a competitive edge by having clear understanding of which new technologies have the edge for commercial deployment,” he concludes. “We are able to quickly incorporate new, better products as they appear in the market. This is how we respond to a fast moving field, and our customers can rest assured that we are providing best in class for the right price.”
Qatar’s Solar Ambition
The view from QSTP with the managing director Hamad Al Kuwari
Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) managing director Hamad Al Kuwari is responsible for developing strategic plans for growth in technology development in four themed areas, energy, environment, information communication technologies and health sciences, which represent the four (technology related) pillars of the Qatar National Research Strategy (QNRS). He is also responsible for identifying areas where synergies can be built between members of QSTP, who are engaging in new activities (in line with QNRS), and QSTP, as well as liaising with governmental agencies. TheEDGE asked him a few questions regarding the development of solar technologies in Qatar:
How important do you think developing solar energy resources is to Qatar and the Gulf region and how do you think QSTP and Qatar can contribute to this?
The 2030 vision, the Qatar National Development Strategy 2016, and the Qatar National Research Strategy 2012 (QNRS), all address the need for the use of alternative energy, where solar energy is the obvious low hanging fruit for Qatar. Given that the region has a similar climate, our research outcomes would be applicable elsewhere. Diversification of energy resources is very important, and harvesting the energy from the sun’s rays is a wise thing to do.
However, we need to understand the performance and adaptability of the different technologies available worldwide and their applicability in the country. Having plenty of sun does not mean solar energy is a fact; we need to assess and test. Once enough data is collected, technologies are ranked according to commercial viability. We will then be able to provide policy makers with scientific-proven information that can lead to a wider implementation of solar technologies. Setting an objective of providing certain electricity percentage through solar technologies is likely to reduce consumption of natural resources available in the country for exports opportunity cost, notwithstanding, minimising the environmental impact.
QSTP is not only involved with the Chevron/GreenGulf but also QStec in different aspects of solar power. Are there plans to facilitate and/or host further initiatives in this realm and what are the plans to manage the relationship between these separate but related entities and/or projects?
Our partners are Chevron and GreenGulf in the Solar Test Facility. QStec is an investment by Qatar Foundation (QF) to produce polysilicon, which is the raw material for cell production. QSTEC is part of the QF family and once they are in operation, there will be plenty of room for collaboration, one of which will be testing the models produced using the polysilicon from that plant in the test facility. QSTP is always open for new initiatives as long as they are in line with the QNRS.
Related to the previous question, how does QSTP balance the issue of managing corporate confidentiality (for example with a venture like Chevron/GreenGulf research’s information from the facility) with sharing information for further research and academic purposes?
One of the early discussions between QSTP and any of its partners after looking into the initiative itself is confidentiality and how the information will be dealt with, and then an agreement [can be] reached on the handling confidentiality prior to the start of any project.
If some of these technologies are proven to be cost effective and efficient do you think that they will be adopted in a major way in Qatar, what role do you think Qatar can play in developing these technologies locally and exporting them to the world and what will QSTP’s role in this be?
The expected outcomes of the Solar Testing Facility are to understand the performance of these different technologies, quantifying the challenges that would be faced related to the local climate. Thus, there will be ranking of different technologies based on their performance and application. Qatar can play a significant role in adjusting those technologies to be more cost-effective and adaptive to the local environment, such as using nanotechnologies to reduce the potential effect of dust.