Qatar Warming to Solar Energy

Photo: Oxfam International

In November 2012, Qatar hosted the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference. At the convention, Qatar, along with other Gulf states Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said they will be making efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by reforming their energy sectors through the introduction of renewable energy sources. Qatar has also demonstrated strategies for investing and developing solar technologies. Although Qatar is the world’s fourth leading exporter of liquid natural gas, it is also the smallest of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and faces financial and technological obstacles in order for an energy sector reform to be counted a success.

Energy Track Record

Qatar is the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, with oil and natural gas accounting for more 60 percent of the small country’s gross domestic product. While geographically compact, Qatar has a rapidly growing population of 1.8 million and is the highest per capita income country due to oil and gas exports. The nation is also the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitter. In 2010, Qatar emitted an estimated 64.68 million metric tons of carbon dioxide as a result of energy consumption, and is entirely dependent upon fossil fuels for electricity5.

As a fossil fuel nation, switching to renewable energy has previously been met with apprehension by Qatar as they have not set clear target emission reductions at UN discussions and have anticipated a decreased demand for oil and gas produced by OPEC nations; something that would adversely affect Qatar’s economy. However, Qatar hosted the UN Climate Change Conference of 2012, announcing they would be developing solar technologies in an attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. During the conference, Doha experienced its first environmental march, in which about 800 people rallied for climate change. As a result of increased environmental awareness, Qatar is planning to host a carbon-neutral FIFA World Cup in 2022 and produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2024.


Fossil Fuels in Oil-Rich Nation To Be Replaced

In order to achieve the first carbon-neutral FIFA tournament and 20 percent energy production by renewable resources, Qatar is turning to solar energy technologies. However, because most solar photovoltaic (PT) energy has been used in more temperate, northern climates, solar technology will need to be modified in order to accommodate Qatar’s desert climate.

Although the sunny, dry conditions of the Middle East seem ideal for solar technology, with summers that exceed 110°F, Qatar is hotter and dustier than countries with successful solar energy sectors like Germany, the United States, and Japan. Without regular rainfall to wash away caked on dust, and extreme heat, most solar panels cannot operate efficiently. In order to develop solar technology that is appropriate for the Gulf region, Chevron, an American multinational energy corporation, has made a five-year commitment to the Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), which is investing $10 million in the Center for Sustainable Energy Efficiency. A $20 million, 35,000 square-meter solar technology testing facility, funded by Chevron and GreenGulf Inc., is being planned for the exploration of desert worthy solar technology.

Qatar Solar Technologies (QSTec) Shell, Conoco Phillips, and General Electric are also involved in the multinational commercial research and development of solar energy. Conoco Phillips is researching and developing different methods of water treatment, such as desalinization, something that is being done with solar energy. A polysicilicon plant producing PV solar panels at QSTec would assist in these water treatment developments. General Electrics is in a joint venture with Conoco Phillips, and has established the GE Advance Research and Technology Center at Qatar Science and Technology Park. The polysilicon plant is currently expected to be ready in quarter four of 2013.


Energy Efforts and Global Effects

At stake however, is that even as Qatar promises to produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable resources, question linger over whether their efforts will have a significant enough environmental influence?

By hosting the UN Climate Change Conference, Qatar appears to be making a commitment that is increasing in popularity throughout the Middle East. In a statement at the UN Climate Change Conference, OPEC Secretary General GE Abdalla Salem El-Badri said, “OPEC Member Countries are making huge efforts to protect the environment,” and are “developing hybrid solar-natural gas power stations and solar desalination units.” The United Arab Emirates have completed a 100-megawatt solar power plant. Egypt, like Qatar, has also committed to producing about one fifth of their energy from renewable resources. Libya and Saudi Arabia are expected to join the renewable energy effort.

OPEC nations may be on board with renewable energy, but do smaller Middle East countries, like Qatar have the ability to make a global environmental impact? Qatar may have high per-capita carbon dioxide emissions, but it is a small country. Looking at total emissions in 2012, countries like the United States and China emitted 2351 and 1165 million metric tons of CO2 respectively. Qatar released 16.815 million metric tons the same year.

In the Middle East, Qatar and other Gulf nations have the ability to make significant changes with nonrenewable energy production reductions over the next decade. Globally, however, Qatar’s emissions are less than one tenth of large countries like China, The United States and India. Reducing emissions by 20 percent will not greatly alter the worldwide greenhouse gas emissions unless the largest emitters also reduce their overall emissions.

Dr. Sanford A. Klein, an affiliate of the Solar Energy Lab at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, confirmed that “Qatar is too small to have any more than a symbolic effect and its citizens are atypical.”

However, Dr. Daniel Kammen, Professor and Founding Director for the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California – Berkeley, says, “Qatar can become a significant leader even though a small nation, for several reasons. First, while the Gulf has tremendous solar resources, large-scale integration and deployment requires evolution and innovation at the utility scale.” With this kind of transformation, Qatar is in a position to, “clearly show the technical and financial path to a clean energy economy.”

Qatar is in a unique position financially though. Because of their oil and petroleum exports, it is one of the highest per-capita income countries at $98,900 in 2011. As solar energy can cost up to three times that of fossil fuels, Qatar has the ability to finance such major renewable energy developments.

Yet despite a high per-capita income, Dr. Kammen argues that, “the evolution of solar, in particular, to dramatically lower costs per watt mean that while Qatar’s wealth is a benefit, it is not the key feature. As we have seen in Kenya, Germany, Portugal, and California, the key is commitment to a changing policy landscape that favors clean energy. This is where Qatar’s small size and ease of defining clear policies to build a new energy economy are most important.”

In comparison, the United States, with a per-capita GDP of $48,300, used fossil fuels for 75 percent of energy production as of 2010. The remaining 25 percent came from nuclear fuels, hydroelectric plants, and other renewables.

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