Solar energy put to the test

According to the most recent edition of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, global energy demand will increase by over a third by 2035, with China, India and the Middle East accounting for 60 percent of that growth.

Thankfully, the world’s leading energy experts are stepping up to this challenge by investing in a broad portfolio of sustainable energy resources, most notably solar-based solutions, an area in which Qatar is increasingly staking a claim.

The recently launched Solar Test Facility (STF) at Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP) is one of the most forward-thinking projects in Qatar with regard to sustainable energy solutions and, more importantly, harnessing the unique characteristics of the nation’s climate. A joint venture between QSTP tenants Chevron Qatar and GreenGulf, it will reap benefits almost immediately for the region and for potential solar investors in the long term due to a comprehensive approach to establish the optimum solar technologies for Qatar.

The project began back in 2009 when Omran Al Kuwari, GreenGulf CEO, pitched the idea of establishing a solar test facility to QSTP. In March 2009, the project was announced under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of Qatar Foundation, who was also present at the facility’s recent inauguration. In that same year, GreenGulf’s Corporate Research Agreement with QSTP was signed to move the ambitious project forward.

With the support and guidance of QSTP, GreenGulf and Chevron became partners in developing the STF, and in 2010, both entities signed a Joint Study Agreement to develop and operate the facility. The recent 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 8th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP8) was billed a fitting backdrop for the facility’s launch.

As Carl Atallah, Chevron Qatar President, explains, the core of the STF concept is maximizing energy supplies.“When we talk about energy efficiency, we can talk about energy supply – how are we going to get the supply we need?” he asks. “And that supply, in the context of renewable energy, will be on the solar side, so we’re testing energy efficiency and the supply of energy via solar power. The test for the facility is to understand which technologies perform best in Qatar’s environment.”

The testing will be nothing if not comprehensive, with about 30 different forms of solar technology due to be put through their paces at QSTP.

“Not all technologies in solar power are created equal,” Atallah says. “You can have photovoltaic cells (a method of generating electricity by converting solar radiation into direct-current electricity through semiconductors) with difference tolerance to heat – some can produce more energy, some can produce less.

“So we have 20 different photovoltaic technologies and 10 or so different solar thermal technologies. The photovoltaic technologies take the sun’s energy and convert it into electric energy. The solar thermal technologies take the sun’s energy and convert it into heat.”

In terms of the photovoltaic options, Atallah explains that their testing will be part of phase one of the facility’s operations, and their importance is hugely relevant when one considers the unique climate of Qatar. “The current photovoltaic technologies are typically designed for lower temperatures, so they perform best at lower temperatures such as 25 °C,” he explains. “Temperatures in Qatar can get exceptionally high, so the performance of those photovoltaic technologies will be vastly different here, and that’s before you consider the effects of the sand and the humidity.”

In addition to photovoltaic testing for its initial phase, the STF will also experiment with different cleaning cycles for its solar technologies, in addition to testing various anti-dust coatings for solar panels to study dust accumulation.

“Before you can actually define a solar project in this environment you need to understand which are the best technologies to use here, which is what we will try to test,” he says.