Q: What do you exactly do in the Renewable Energy Program?
A: At KISR we are launching a new program or a couple of programs that tackle the issue of energy in terms of resource diversification and energy conservation. I am leading the renewable energy program.
Let me begin by telling you about the importance of energy in the current world. History tells us that wherever you had water and arable lands, a civilization developed there. This is what had happened all over the world in the history of mankind. Since, industrial revolution, man began to rely on energy as a basis for the formation of civilization. So, if you had energy like in the Gulf states, you could build a civilization in the middle of the desert by converting dry land into arable lands and converting salt water into potable water for drinking and irrigation.
So from that we can identify clearly what energy means to us nowadays. It is from that perspective the renewable energy program at KISR has been formulated.
When exactly did Kuwait start mulling over renewable energy? That was just after the first oil price boom in the mid Seventies, when the price of oil touched $40 to $47 per barrel. That’s when the world began to look for alternative forms of energy. One of those alternatives was renewable energy. At that time, the interest in renewable energy stemmed solely from the oil price. That’s why in the Eighties, when the oil prices dropped, most of the Research and Development activities started in pursuit of alternative energy was abandoned and countries rolled back their funds for such projects. And companies that were involved in the research went bankrupt.
In early 2000, people started thinking about going back to renewable energy for a multitude of reasons, not just price. Oil prices reached a record high of $147 per barrel, which was way too costly than in the Seventies. In addition to that, debates on climate change were getting louder. More and more countries began realizing the consequences of climate change and began to take efforts in the direction of greener solutions for our energy needs. Then there was the energy security issue. Each country has its own development plan and without having sufficient and cheap energy resources, the development of any country will be undermined.
So, we have mainly three driving forces behind the current renewable energy boom. Some countries began earlier by 2000 or 2001. However, the real boom began after 2005. And the efforts gained greater strength after 2008 when oil prices escalated further.
In 2004, we at KISR began assessing potential renewable energy resources in Kuwait, including wind and sun. We found that we had enough natural potential in sun and wind to balance our energy needs, especially in summer, when the demand is at the highest.
Summer is when we have ample sun and wind. In addition to that, these elements are most available in the day time, which is when our energy consumption also peaks. Our peak demand in summer is between 7 am and 5 pm. So there is a very high potential in solar power and wind energy. There are also other renewable energy resources like geothermal energy, ocean energy, dams, domestic waste energy and biomass. These are some of the other alternative energy resources that are used in varying degrees across the world. However, these are not very feasible in Kuwait. Our best bet is the wind and sun. These can play a major role in providing us with significant level of energy.
In KISR we have launched an ambitious plan recently, aimed at converting our structure from the old divisional structure into centre-program structure. We have divided KISR into four main centers. Energy, petroleum, water and environment and life science center. Each of these centers runs a number of programs. Totally we have 29 programs.
The Energy Center has five programs under it. Renewable Energy program is one among them. Other than Renewable Energy program, there are energy efficiency technology program, nano technology program, fuel cells program and civil engineering structures program. I am leading the renewable energy program. Our plan is to run a number of research projects that can be introduced to the local market as a new business line by providing power from renewable energy resources.
Currently we are running four research projects. One of them is the feasibility study. We would like to know the exactly how much it would cost us to produce a kilowatt hour from sun and from wind. Of course, solar energy can be divided into two main branches. Solar photovoltaic, which is the solar panels that can be set up on rooftops and so on… you must have seen the solar calculator, it’s similar to that. The second one is the solar thermal energy. When you leave your car in the sun in summer for a while its interior heats up tremendously. This is the basic technology behind solar thermal energy. It traps the heat to boil water to convert it to steam at high temperature and pressure and then we run a conventional steam turbine using this steam.
Q: Kuwait has an bundant source of fossil fuels. Then what is the urgent need to find an alternative source of energy now?
A: The reason is simply that we need it. Kuwait is growing at a very fast pace. Our population is growing, our industries are growing and we have ambitious development plans. This renders us with a very big appetite for energy. We will absorb any energy that we can generate.
I told you about energy security. If you rely too heavily on fossil fuels, it will not sustain the development goals of Kuwait. We all know that one day or other this source of energy will run dry. We have to think of diversifying our energy resources, mainly for two reasons. Firstly, we want to reduce the fossil consumption per year. Our consumption exceeds $4 billion per year. This is just fuel used to generate electricity. This is figure is growing every year. Just imagine the amount of money being wasted in conventional power plants. Therefore, it is very important to replace at least some of this fossil fuel with other cleaner energy resources.
This has two benefits: we can preserve oil, and when oil prices go up in the international market, the government can sell oil and meet our energy requirements using renewable resources. We can thus generate high revenues and benefit from it.
That’s why we have embarked on renewable energy. The feasibility study as I said is the first project we have undertaken. The second project focuses on the regulations and policies that the government needs to set up to promote the use of renewable energy. The production cost of renewable energy is high compared to the production cost of conventional energy.
In Europe you have the option of mixing up the energy resources to meet your energy needs. You can draw energy from renewable sources like sun and wind, from thermal power plants, nuclear power plants and so on. You can mix up your energy bills for optimum use. There you have utility companies who can understand your energy requirements and provide a combination of different energy resources to balance cost and efficiency. However, the gap between the cost of producing renewable energy and conventional energy is closing up fast. They can be produced at more or less the same cost. This is a very interesting development.
This is what we are expecting to happen in the Gulf states as well. As the technology develops and more players enter the fray, the prices will drastically come down.
Therefore, we are in the process of hammering out a well-balanced incentive mechanism to give the right push for this nascent industry to stand on its legs and move ahead. Once the technology is fully established and commercialized, you will be able to run a conventional power plant without fuel.
Of course, we don’t have impossible targets such as a replacing the whole of our dependence on fossil fuels with renewable energy. But we are hopeful of cutting our dependence on oil by 10 percent to 30 percent over the next two decades. This is what the study is going to tell us.
Q: Why is the cost of renewable energy so high when sun and wind are freely available in nature?
A: When I said the cost is high, I mean the initial cost. The construction cost. Right now the cost of setting up a renewable energy plant is much higher than the cost of setting up a conventional power plant. This is so because when you want to construct a conventional power plant you have dozens of companies in the world with the expertise to build and commission a plant. But to build a, let’s say, solar thermal plant, you will have very few players in the market that you can rely on. Therefore with supply being minimal the cost is high. It’s only a matter of time before you have enough companies in the renewable energy market and with increased competition the prices will come down.
Q: You were telling about the need to commercialize renewable energy. How do you think it can be achieved? You can sell oil, how can you sell wind power and solar energy?
A: Firstly, you have to build a plant in the right location. I am talking about renewable energy. For example if you are putting up a wind turbine, you have to set up the plant in a place where there is abundant wind. If it is a solar panel, you will have to build it in the right place where the conditions for the project are satisfied.
Sometimes, these locations are not close to the cities or the electricity grids. So you have to establish the grid, the cables that can transfer this power to the consumers. Once you get to the grid, the utility company, in this case the Ministry of Electricity and Water, can control the flow, the demand and supply, and distribute it to different parts of the country.
Q: What about the losses due to resistance in the cables?
A: Yes, usually there is a certain amount of loss. But this is the case even with conventional power. However, our program is also looking into this, and we have technology to reduce losses and keep them to a bare minimum, to really insignificant levels. We will be setting up the right technology that suits our market and climate conditions here in Kuwait. Other countries in the region have very ambitious plans too. Like, for example, India. India has massive plans to set up solar thermal power stations and wind turbines in the South. Suzlon, an Indian company, is the foremost company in the world in the field of wind energy. Today it is an international company and has a Research and Development Lab in Denmark. Abu Dhabi has already commissioned a 10 Megawatt photovoltaic plant. They are already in the process of constructing a 100 Megawatt solar thermal power plant.
The leading country in solar thermal energy is Spain. In wind energy, many European countries are leading the race. Eastern parts of the United States like California and so on have shown much progress in tapping sun and wind energy.
Q: Can you envision a stage where renewable energy will become a cottage industry in Kuwait, where every house has a small solar panel on the roof and supplies power to a main grid?
A: This system is already there in Germany. Every house can have a solar photovoltaic on the rooftop. Picture this. You have a photovoltaic on your rooftop. When you go on holiday, the energy you produce on your rooftop can be injected to a grid and your neighbor will use it. And when you return from you vacation, you may find a cheque waiting for you.
This is how incentives and regulations can play a major role in the development of renewable energy industry. In Kuwait, we have plans of enabling home-generated power using panels. This way each house can generate its own energy needs to some extent and subsidize the rest from the grid. This can significantly reduce demand.
We can also set up a centralized power plant on the supply side like in a desert and transfer power to urban areas. We will be working from both these angles in future.
Q: So far you have been only telling me about meeting electricity needs. What about automobiles? Is there any way of using renewable energy to run electric vehicles?
A: Yes. Electric cars have already been tested in the market. Hydrogen cars are also feasible. These are cars that run on fuel cells. But I think it will take some time, though the technology has been proven. Many car companies have introduced their electric cars in the market. But there are some technical limitations. I believe it is only a transition period. It’s only a matter of time before electric cars will eat into the market and run alongside conventional cars in another fifty or hundred years from now.
These cars have been tested in Japan, America and some European countries. Electric cars will be very successful in mega cities, and that will be their best application. They will reduce air and noise pollution, apart from saving fuel. It is not under our strategic objective for the time being.
Q: You said one of the key driving forces behind this shift towards renewable energy is climate change. How grave a threat is climate change, and how effective will our efforts be in curtailing it?
A: Earlier this phenomenon was called global warming. Now they call it climate change, because some scientists said the world is getting hotter, while other said there is going to be a global freezing. So the United Nations decided to call it climate change. There is going to a change in climate is for sure, but in which direction we don’t know for certain.
Whatever it may be, everyone agrees that the risk comes from greenhouse gasses and that we have to reduce their emissions to avert the disaster. Any process that involves combustion using fossil fuels emits CO2, which is a greenhouse gas. By reducing the consumption of energy produced not through clean means we can definitely cut down the emission of CO2 to baseline levels.
The CO2 particulates in the atmosphere can affect the interaction between the earth and the sun. So any effort to reduce CO2 emissions will help in improving the environmental conditions in the long term. Other than this, renewable energy is a clean source of energy. It leaves no byproducts. There are no residues in any form. This is one of the main advantages of renewable energy.
While the energy you consume is clean and green, then you do not contribute to climate change. Once CO2 particulates are emitted into the atmosphere, they are difficult to control.
We are also trying to arrive at solutions for burning oil or gas without any emissions. We call it the zero-emission process. This is part of clean-energy technologies.
Dr Salem Alhajraf is the Research Scientist, Program Manager, Renewable Energy at KISR. He has more than 18 years experience in various scientific research fields mainly in Environment and Energy including clean energy technologies, wind/solar energy applications, emergency preparedness, environmental rehabilitation, Air Quality Assessment, and numerical modeling. His experience covers initiation of research ideas, proposal writing, fund raising, team formation, project execution and documentation.
Since 2001, Dr Alhajraf has managed and executed more than ten client-research projects and participated in many others. He has also participated as a key member of many scientific and organizing committees of several national and regional conferences, workshops and symposiums. He has more than 20 publications in pre-reviewed scientific journals and conferences. Dr Alhajraf is the vice-chair of the creative thinking committee, KISR.
By Valiya S. Sajjad, www.arabtimesonline.com