Bioenergy in the Middle East

The Middle East region offers tremendous renewable energy potential in the form of solar, wind and bioenergy which has remained unexplored to a great extent. The major biomass producing Middle East countries are Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. Traditionally, biomass energy has been widely used in rural areas for domestic purposes in the Middle East. Since most of the region is arid/semi-arid, the biomass energy potential is mainly contributed by municipal solid wastes, agricultural residues and agro-industrial wastes.

Municipal solid wastes represent the best bioenergy resource in the Middle East. The high rate of population growth, urbanization and economic expansion in the region is not only accelerating consumption rates but also accelerating the generation of municipal waste. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait rank in the top-ten worldwide in terms of per capita solid waste generation. The gross urban waste generation quantity from Middle East countries is estimated at more than 150 million tons annually.

In Middle East countries, huge quantity of sewage sludge is produced on daily basis which presents a serious problem due to its high treatment costs and risk to environment and human health. On an average, the rate of wastewater generation is 80-200 litres per person each day and sewage output is rising by 25 percent every year. According to estimates from the Drainage and Irrigation Department of Dubai Municipality, sewage generation in the Dubai increased from 50,000 m3 per day in 1981 to 400,000 m3 per day in 2006.

The food processing industry in Middle East produces a large number of organic residues and by-products that can be used as source of bioenergy. In recent decades, the fast-growing food and beverage processing industry has remarkably increased in importance in major countries of the Middle East.

Since the early 1990s, the increased agricultural output stimulated an increase in fruit and vegetable canning as well as juice, beverage, and oil processing in countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. There are many technologically-advanced dairy products, bakery and oil processing plants in the region.

date-wastes

Date palm biomass is found in large quantities across the Middle East

Agriculture plays an important role in the economies of most of the countries in the Middle East.  The contribution of the agricultural sector to the overall economy varies significantly among countries in the region, ranging, for example, from about 3.2 percent in Saudi Arabia to 13.4 percent in Egypt. Cotton, dates, olives, wheat are some of the prominent crops in the Middle East

Large quantities of crop residues are produced annually in the region, and are vastly underutilised. Current farming practice is usually to plough these residues back into the soil, or they are burnt, left to decompose, or grazed by cattle. These residues could be processed into liquid fuels or thermochemically processed to produce electricity and heat in rural areas.

Energy crops, such as Jatropha, can be successfully grown in arid regions for biodiesel production. Infact, Jatropha is already grown at limited scale in some Middle East countries and tremendous potential exists for its commercial exploitation.

The Middle Eastern countries have strong animal population. The livestock sector, in particular sheep, goats and camels, plays an important role in the national economy of the Middle East countries. Many millions of live ruminants are imported into the Middle Eastern countries each year from around the world. In addition, the region has witnessed very rapid growth in the poultry sector. The biogas potential of animal manure can be harnessed both at small- and community-scale.

Agricultural Wastes in the Middle East

Agriculture plays an important role in the economies of most of the countries in the Middle East.  The contribution of the agricultural sector to the overall economy varies significantly among countries in the region, ranging, for example, from about 3.2 percent in Saudi Arabia to 13.4 percent in Egypt.  Large scale irrigation is expanding, enabling intensive production of high value cash and export crops, including fruits, vegetables, cereals, and sugar.

The term ‘crop residues’ covers the whole range of biomass produced as by-products from growing and processing crops. Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as bagasse, straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. Wheat and barley are the major staple crops grown in the Middle East region. In addition, significant quantities of rice, maize, lentils, chickpeas, vegetables and fruits are produced throughout the region, mainly in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Date palm is one of the principal agricultural products in the arid and semi-arid region of the world, especially Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The Arab world has more than 84 million date palm trees with the majority in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates. Date palm trees produce huge amount of agricultural wastes in the form of dry leaves, stems, pits, seeds etc. A typical date tree can generate as much as 20 kilograms of dry leaves per annum while date pits account for almost 10 percent of date fruits. Some studies have reported that Saudi Arabia alone generates more than 200,000 tons of date palm biomass each year.

In Egypt, crop residues are considered to be the most important and traditional source of domestic fuel in rural areas. These crop residues are by-products of common crops such as cotton, wheat, maize and rice. The total amount of residues reaches about 16 million tons of dry matter per year. Cotton residues represent about 9% of the total amount of residues. These are materials comprising mainly cotton stalks, which present a disposal problem. The area of cotton crop cultivation accounts for about 5% of the cultivated area in Egypt.

A cotton field in Egypt

Large quantities of crop residues are produced annually in the Middle East, and are vastly underutilised. Current farming practice is usually to plough these residues back into the soil, or they are burnt, left to decompose, or grazed by cattle. These residues could be processed into liquid fuels or thermochemical processed to produce electricity and heat in rural areas. Energy crops, such as Jatropha, can be successfully grown in arid regions for biodiesel production. Infact, Jatropha is already grown at limited scale in some Middle East countries and tremendous potential exists for its commercial exploitation.

A wide range of thermal and biochemical technologies exists to convert the energy stored in agricultural wastes into useful forms of energy. Thermochemical conversion technologies like combustion, gasification and pyrolysis can yield steam, syngas, bio oil etc. On the other hand, the high volatile solids content in agro wastes can be transformed into biogas in anaerobic digestion plants, possibly by codigestion with MSW, sewage sludge, animal wastes and/and food wastes. The cellulosic content in agricultural residues can be transformed into biofuel (bioethanol) by making use of the fermentation process. In addition, the highly organic nature of agricultural wastes makes it highly suitable for compost production which can be used to replace chemical fertilizers in agricultural farms. Thus, abundance of agro residues in the Middle East can catalyze the development of biomass energy sector in the region.

Renewables Market in MENA

mena-renewablesMENA region has an attractive market for renewables due to abundant availability of solar and wind resources. According to a recent IRENA report, the region is anticipating renewable energy investment of $35 billion per year by 2020. Recently, the MENA region has received some of the lowest renewable energy prices awarded globally for solar PV and wind energy.

Regional Developments

Among MENA countries, Morocco has emerged as a role model for the entire region. The government’s target of 2GW of solar and 2GW of wind power by 2020 is progressing smoothly with the commissioning of Nour-1 Solar project. Jordan and Egypt are also making steady progress in renewable energy sector.

As far as GCC is concerned, the UAE has also shown serious commitment to develop solar energy. The 100MW Shams CSP plant has been operational since 2014 in Abu Dhabi while 13MW Phase I of Dubai’s solar park was completed in 2013. In Saudi Arabia, the newly launched Vision 2030 document has put forward a strong regulatory and investment framework to develop Saudi clean energy sector which should catalyse renewable energy development in the country.

Renewables – A boon for MENA

Renewable energy has multiple advantages for MENA in the form of energy security, improved air quality, reduced GHG emissions, employment opportunities, apart from augmenting water and food security.

The business case for renewable energy proliferation in MENA is strengthened by plentiful availability of natural energy resources and tumbling solar PV technology costs which are leading to record low renewable power generation costs. The recent auction for the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park 2 in Dubai yielded prices as low as 5.85 US cents per kWh which is one of the lowest worldwide.

Impact of Falling Costs

The falling costs will have a significant positive impact in the developing world where tens of millions of people still lack access to cheap and reliable supply of energy. Reducing costs will help MENA, especially GCC, to meet its target of steady transition towards renewable energy and thus reducing dependence on fossil fuels for power generation and seawater desalination.

The slump in renewable energy tariffs will also encourage utility companies in emerging markets to include more renewable energy in transmission and meet the targets set by respective countries. However, it should also be noted that there have been several instances where the actual renewable energy production failed to take place because of low bids.

Emerging Trends

Off-grid renewable energy technologies have tremendous potential to popularize clean energy among remote and marginalized communities across the world. Access to clean, reliable and relatively cheap energy from renewable resources, especially solar power, will usher in a new era in developing countries. Off-grid (or standalone) renewable power systems are already making a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of people across the developing world.

In recent years, Morocco has made remarkably swift progress in renewable energy sector.

In recent years, Morocco has made remarkably swift progress in renewable energy sector.

Advancements in battery energy storage have pushed this particular sector into media as well as public spotlight. With big industry names like Tesla and Nissan leading from the front, energy storage technologies are expected to make great contribution in transition to green grid powered by intermittent energy sources like solar PV, CSP, wind and biomass.

Concentrated solar power (CSP) has the potential to transform seawater desalination industry, one of the largest energy consumers in the Middle East. CSP offers an attractive option to power industrial-scale desalination plants that require both high temperature fluids and electricity.  CSP can provide stable energy supply for continuous operation of desalination plants, based on thermal or membrane processes. Leading CSP technology companies are already taking a keen interest in Middle East CSP market and rapid developments are expected in the coming years.

Key Hurdles to Overcome

Lack of strong regulatory framework, low renewable energy tariffs and weak off-take mechanisms are some of the issues confronting renewable energy projects in MENA. Regulatory framework in the GCC is in early stages and marred by heavy subsidy for oil and gas. The largest barrier to growth of solar sector in MENA has been the lack of renewable energy policy framework, legislations, institutional support, feed-in-tariffs and grid access.

The power sector in MENA is, by and large, dominated by state utilities which discourage entrepreneurs and Independent Power Producers (IPPs) to enter the local markets. Lack of open and transparent market conditions in MENA are acting as deterrent for investors, technology companies and project developers.

Among regional countries, Jordan and Morocco have the most advanced legal infrastructure in place to support renewable energy projects, followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Tips for New Entrants

MENA solar market is complex due to different electricity market structure and myriad challenges in each country. Different countries have different motivations for renewable energy. Solar companies who want to foray in MENA market must give special attention to land access, grid access, transparent licensing schemes, high-quality meteorological data, creditworthy customers, long-term off-take contracts, soiling of PV panels and related issues.