Thirteen years ago electronics retailer Abdulmajeed al-Wahbani was one of the first people in Yemen to venture into the solar power business. So far the gamble has paid off.
His solar panel supply business found a niche and has seen impressive growth, while also helping to fight rural poverty.
“People need to work, and to secure their business and their life, they will go to solar power,” he told IRIN.
He said his rapid business growth is tied to a negative trend in Yemen – increasingly frequent and lengthy power outages over the past decade, especially during the political instability last year. Power cuts can sometimes last for weeks, acting as a brake on the economy, outside major cities.
In 2013 he is planning a nationwide advertising campaign to promote renewable energy – something he hopes will spread to the “entire country”. While that goal may seem ambitious, both the need and potential for renewable energy in Yemen are high.
Yemen’s western coast, from Bab al-Mandab to Al-Mokha, rates among the windiest corridors in the world, while the country’s frequently clear skies make it a prime candidate for solar power. More modest geothermal potential also exists.
The wider Arab region has a strong and under-exploited potential for solar energy for electricity production and desalination, according to a new report by the World Bank.
“We [in Yemen] have a good source of wind on the Red Sea, we have the sun, we feel we’re on a learning curve and going through a transition,” said Abdulaziz Daer, general manager of Dome Trading, which provides a range of services to the energy sector – at this point, mainly oil and gas companies.
By the Ministry of Electricity and Energy’s own estimates, renewable energy could potentially supply over 50,000 megawatts (MW) of power, or 50 times current production levels.
Some 70 percent of Yemen’s 25 million citizens live in rural areas – many far from the national grid. Even those lucky enough to have a connection get an intermittent service. Although no official study has been done, experts believe that Yemen produces only about a third of the total electricity needed – 1,000 MW out of an estimated demand of 3,000 MW
While renewable energy offers an attractive alternative to widely-used diesel generators, Daer says major changes in the Yemeni energy sector will only come about when the government does more to support commercial renewable projects.
He said small-scale renewable energy production, however admirable, is but “a drop in the ocean compared to the population of Yemen.”
Professor Hussain Al-Towaie teaches energy technology at the University of Aden and places the blame for the slow growth of the commercial renewable energy sector squarely on the shoulders of the Yemeni government and its subsidies on the oil used in most power stations.
“In my opinion, people that see there is a potential and do not do anything [are] actually against renewable energy,” he argues.
He says that by “pay[ing] for the conventional energy and not the renewable energy” the government is turning its back on the latter.
Dome Trading’s Daer said the government should “be the model” to show people the benefits of renewable energy, but both men are doubtful it has the necessary will or capacity to do so.
That view is not shared by Adel Abdulghani, general director of planning and information at the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, who cites existing policies as evidence of progress.
In 2010, the cabinet approved renewable energy, energy efficiency and rural electrification strategies that called for, among other things, renewable energy to contribute 10-15 percent of Yemen’s electricity by 2020, and 20,000 solar power units to be installed in rural Yemeni homes.
“We cannot say that the government doesn’t care, but there is no real governmental action toward pushing those strategies,” he told IRIN, citing Yemen’s political crisis as a major stumbling block.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Yemeni government and the international community have focused their attention on avoiding economic and political collapse.
One victim of these shifting priorities is a 60MW wind farm in Al-Mokha that has been in the works since 2009.
he project ground to a halt when unrest broke out, and the World Bank was forced to reallocate millions of dollars’ worth of funding that it had originally designated for the wind farm to more urgent needs.
Lately though, there have been signs that renewable energy is regaining at least some momentum.
Hassan Taleb, a procurement specialist at the Electricity and Energy Ministry, told IRIN: “By next month we should announce the tenders for consultancy and also for implementation” of the Mokha wind project.
The government is also nearing completion of a deal to supply 7,000 individual solar units to rural areas.
However, until those installations become tangible examples, or small scale solar becomes widespread, many Yemenis will remain either skeptical or unaware of the potential for renewable energy to improve their daily lives.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently started a programme which aims to address rural poverty by integrating renewable energy into the agriculture sector.
Earlier this year the agency began building demonstration greenhouses that use solar energy to power electric fans that help farmers avoid disease, and also provide water-saving irrigation techniques.
Experts at USAID say these systems are nine times more productive than farming on open land, and can operate independently of Yemen’s inconsistent power and fuel supply.
The benefits though come at a cost – the upfront costs (US$9,000) are prohibitive for most Yemeni farmers, many of whom lack access to formal credit.
“If the government has the ability to establish banks [and] credit facilities in the long term for the farmers, that could overcome the problem of heavy diesel consumption,” said Dome Trading’s Daer.