Start-ups bank on region’s long spells of sunshine

The region is becoming more aware of the need for clean, green energy.
Sunday 29/07/2018
Limitless resource. Electric car at a charging station at Marrakech airport. (Econosol)
Limitless resource. Electric car at a charging station at Marrakech airport. (Econosol)

With a high number of sunshine-filled hours for more than 300 days a year, the Arab world should be pushing solar energy, which is cheap, clean and plentiful. The Middle East and North Africa have a growing number of projects, not all of which are government-owned.

The International Renewable Energy Authority said the solar energy sector in the region will attract approximately $35 billion a year by 2020. Morocco and the United Arab Emirates are building massive solar-power plants and Saudi Arabia is planning one.

Away from government initiatives, solar start-ups have room to grow. By some estimates, there are about 50 entrepreneurial ventures banking on the sun across the Maghreb, the Gulf, the Levant and South Sudan.

Econosol, in Casablanca, started four years ago and installs solar panels in petrol stations, homes, hotels and fields across Marrakech, Rabat and Essaouira. Michael Benhaim, who founded the company, said the region’s future must be solar. “It allows you to harvest the limitless, predictable and absolutely free natural resource of the sun,” he says.

He said the market for solar cells or photovoltaics can only grow. “Photovoltaics are a robust and durable technology transforming sun rays into electricity,” he said.

Maher Maymoun, co-founder of Jordan’s SolarPiezoClean, argues the region needs to move beyond non-renewable energy sources. “It’s time to eliminate and stop fossil fuel power generation, carbon emissions and reduce the rampant pollution in our cities,” Maymoun said.

Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry said climate change will cause longer droughts, more intense heatwaves and more frequent dust storms in the region. Summer temperatures, it predicted, will rise faster in the MENA region than the global average and extremes of 46 degrees Celsius or higher will be about five times more likely by 2050 than in 2000. Also by 2050, the region’s population will have nearly doubled to 692 million.

These are concerns driving start-ups such as SolarPiezoClean to develop self-cleaning technologies without water for solar panels. They will be useful in dusty, water-scarce areas, said Maymoun, who co-founded the company in 2013 as part of a university research project.

Everyone acknowledges that the push for solar goes beyond the fight against climate change and pollution. Reducing electricity bills is a powerful incentive.

Benhaim said start-ups are simply treading a path taken by the government. “Ten years ago, the Moroccan government understood that it would be better off producing its own energy rather than importing it at an expensive cost, which would only increase the frustrations of customers, who were already paying too much for electricity,” he said.

After four years in business, Econosol is turning a healthy profit and looking to market solar cells more widely.

For all too long, solar panels have been associated with agricultural projects. Sustainable development organisations, such as Egypt’s 51-year-old SEKEM, tout solar initiatives in the hinterland. “SEKEM has three solar pumps on its farms in Wahat al-Bahriya that irrigate a total area of around 90 feddans (38 hectares),” said Noha Hussein, SEKEM’s public relations officer.

She said Egypt is conscious of its vulnerability. “The growth of population and desert lands make it a must to develop our energy solutions. We cannot only rely on burning fossil fuels; which is one the main reason for climate change,” Hussein said.

There are signs the region is becoming more aware of the need for clean, green energy. Last year, the energy ministers of 14 Arab countries signed a memorandum of understanding establishing an Arab Common Market for Electricity. The agreement noted the urgency with which the region views global warning and sustainable energy provision.

However, it can be hard for start-ups to persuade individuals and businesses to invest in long-term solar power infrastructure. Benhaim admitted that solar panels are still expensive. “While costs have been declining over the years, it still remains an investment with a relatively long return on investment. Early adopters are usually technology savvy people that appreciate monitoring their savings over the internet,” he said.

Maymoum added that solar projects are an “attractive, cool brand” and can offer a payback to customers within four years but they must be sold that way, with the long-term gains spelt out.

Wim Alen, general secretary of the Middle East Solar Industry Association, agreed that the best market strategy is that customers will eventually have low electricity prices. This has “changed the perception of policymakers and industry leaders,” he said.

The advantages take time to become apparent, though. Until they do, Benhaim said governments should help promote solar panels. The Moroccan government, like many in the region, doesn’t do much to help, he lamented.

“No green bonuses, no tax incentives and no government subsidies in Morocco — those are the techniques widely used in Europe to promote renewable energy,” Benhaim said.