In an exclusive interview, Bader Al Lamki, executive director of Masdar Clean Energy, reveals his vision for global solar energy and collective GCC grid power
Mr Al Lamki, can you outline how you see the role of solar energy within the future energy system?
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), overall energy demand is set to expand by 30 per cent between now and 2040, at around one per cent per year. The fastest growing sector in utility-scale power generation today is renewable energy, specifically solar power.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) predicts that solar power, both utility- and small-scale, will see almost US$3 trillion of investment through to 2040, increasing its share of installed power capacity to 32 per cent over this period, up from five per cent in 2016.
At the same time, costs are decreasing. According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, the global average levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) of utility-scale solar photovoltaic power fell by an average of 20 per cent annually between 2012 and 2017. Today is at parity with, or even below, the cost of conventional energy in many parts of the world.
Solar energy is already a commercially viable option in meeting peak electricity demand, particularly in hot regions like the Middle East & North Africa. With continued advancements in electrical storage technology, solar power may become a cost effective solution in meeting baseload energy demand in the not too distant future.
With more money being invested globally in solar power last year than in coal, natural gas and nuclear combined, and with the cost of producing solar electricity continuing to fall, it is clear that renewable energy is now a mainstream and commercially viable power technology. And ambitious renewable energy targets, particularly in MENA, India and other emerging markets, are encouraging further investment.
What are the global challenges for growing solar energy worldwide?
One of the primary barriers is the lack of transmission capacity which limits the amount of solar power that can be supplied to the electricity grid. Any expansion in solar needs to go hand-in-hand with grid expansion. This need is particularly acute in less developed regions, especially in Africa and Asia.
The second barrier is storage. As the penetration of solar energy in the grid rises, grid-level energy storage becomes critical. Storage solutions provide the flexibility that transmission systems need to accommodate the intermittency of the wind and the sun.
The good news is that, much like the prices of solar panels and wind turbines in the past decade, battery prices are declining rapidly. The average price of a lithium-ion battery pack is down to US$209/kilowatt-hour, and the prices are set to fall below US$100/kWh by 2025, according to BNEF.
The good news is that, much like the prices of solar panels and wind turbines in the past decade, battery prices are declining rapidly
Masdar is playing an important role in developing storage solutions as part of its commitment to help commercialise advanced clean technologies. Notable examples include the Gemasolar concentrated solar power (CSP) project in Spain, the first commercial-scale renewable energy project in the world to use molten salt thermal storage. We have also just launched the Batwind smart battery storage solution in Scotland, the first in the world to be connected to an offshore wind farm.
In the future, do you foresee that the Middle East will utilise its common grid? How might this look?
A unified electricity grid already exists in the region and has been operational since 2011. The grid works as an emergency back-up system for those countries connected to it (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman), with each maintaining a minimal reserve level in the grid. The grid has an installed capacity of 1.2 gigawatts (GW). However, less than two per cent of installed transmission capacity is being used for energy trade exchanges.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt have announced their intention to start work on connecting their power networks from 2021 in order to link the transmission system of the Arabian Gulf and North Africa, and hopefully Europe.
A transmission system connected to the rest of the MENA would enable Gulf countries to export electricity, including, of course, electricity from renewable energy sources.
How does Masdar see the global renewables energy mix playing out?
While oil and gas will remain drivers of the global economy for decades to come, there is an opportunity to leverage the benefits of renewable and traditional forms of energy by integrating them into a commercially viable and financially successful energy model. This approach lies at the core of the UAE 2050 Energy Plan, which envisages a power mix based on renewables (44 per cent), nuclear power (6 per cent), natural gas (38 per cent) and clean coal (12 per cent).
Renewables and hydrocarbons enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Fossil fuels, like natural gas, provide a baseload power foundation, while solar excels at peak hours. Combining these resources makes strong economic sense.
At Masdar, we believe that long-term energy security will be met through a balanced and diverse energy mix. The leadership of the UAE has placed energy at the heart of its sustainable development agenda.
When will Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai be finalised?
In June 2016, a Masdar-led consortium was appointed to develop the third phase of the MBR Solar Park after bidding a record-low price for solar power generation of 2.99 US cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), a game-changing moment for the renewable energy industry.
Construction of the first 200MW stage of Phase 3 began at the end of January 2017 following the appointment of the project’s EPC contractors and it was delivered on schedule in April this year.
Phase 3 is being developed by the project company Shua’a Energy 2, a partnership between Masdar, the Dubai Energy and Water Authority (DEWA and EDF Energies-Nouvelles (EDF-EN). The second 300MW stage is due for completion next year, while the final stage will be handed over in 2020.
At Masdar, we are proud to be working with DEWA alongside EDF-EN and our partners to support the realisation of the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050.
On completion in 2020, Phase 3 of the MBR Solar Park will make a significant contribution to achieving the UAE’s target of generating 27 per cent of its electricity needs from clean energy sources by 2021, and it will offset an estimated 1.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
FAST BIO: Bader Saeed Al Lamki
Al Lamki is responsible for steering and guiding the teams within Masdar Clean Energy to achieve performance excellence in all areas of investment, green field development and operations for large-scale Renewable Energy Utility Projects, Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage, and Industrial Energy Efficiency solutions. He also oversees Masdar’s Special Projects team and its growing portfolio of off-grid renewable energy projects in the MENA region and international markets.
A UAE national, Al Lamki brings 18 years of industry experience to Masdar Clean Energy having joined Masdar in February 2008. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the UAE University.