A pioneer in the United Arab Emirates’ renewable energy market, Alsa Solar Systems was among the first to develop economically viable solar technologies for the Middle East.
The Abu-Dhabi based company offers services across the technology value chain, from conceptualisation, through design, supply, installation, testing and commissioning, to operation and maintenance, inclusive of civil, electrical or mechanical works. It develops a wide range of technologies, including:
Diesel replacement and solar hybrid systems, frequently used on microgrids for remote sites or communities;
Solar pumping systems, where each pump can handle up to 1 million litres per day without fuel use;
Solar thermal systems, for use in both commercial and residential applications;
Off-grid power packs, for small loads or solar lighting; and
Conventional on-grid rooftop or ground-mount photovoltaic (PV) systems.
Alsa Solar Systems Ltd began approximately three years ago as an offshoot from parent company Alsa Technical Supplies and Services LLC, a supplier to the oil & gas, power and waste industries. Alsa Technical had been involved in solar activities for a while, but did not have the focused approach necessary to make a big impact. Alsa Solar Division Manager Karel De Winter explains how company owners, Abduljabber Al Sayegh and Rashid Saif Al Suweidi, were inspired to establish a solar company after recognising many opportunities for one opening up in the UAE.
“When I came on board, we started setting up Alsa Solar – consolidating the solar activities we were doing, and targeting segments that make sense in this market,” he says.
Servicing an emerging market
The renewable energy market in the UAE – and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as a whole – differs to those in other world regions in that it has no feed-in tariff or other financial incentives. There is no retail market, however De Winter says there is plenty of demand for solar technology among contractors executing green projects and government organisations wanting to enter the renewable energy field. “Our customers may also be individuals looking for an alternative to the diesel power that is currently their only option,” he adds. “These people are looking at ways of reducing their carbon footprint, or simply looking for a solid economical solution that offers good payback.”
Alsa Solar can work flexibly, offering a variety of services for a range of different customers and project types. De Winter says his team is “very passionate about bringing solar to market, and designing solutions that work technically and economically for the client,” which helps explains why it prefers to offer turnkey solutions. “We do that to keep everything in one hand, so that we know the system will be installed and operated as per specifications, and not give solar a bad name,” he explains.
“To extend our service, we are now reaching out to companies, banks and project developers to alleviate the financing portion of projects, which I consider the biggest roadblock to getting solar off the ground. Sometimes clients may be interested and convinced of the technology, but not want to prioritise funding a solar project. If we can start offering that, you will really see the market take off.”
Alsa Solar has managed to double its revenue in every year of operation, and to accumulate a vast portfolio of projects. These range from small, 20W off-grid power packs, to a 635kW Hybrid Solar System on Concourse IV of Dubai Airport.
This will be the largest system of its kind in the UAE, comprising approximately 2,600 PV panels covering 4,300m2 of the airport roof, as well as a solar water heating system with a 30,000-litre tank capacity. Alsa Solar secured the landmark project earlier this year and will be working on it over the next 12 months. “I’m looking forward to seeing all our panels spread out like a welcome mat whenever I fly into Dubai,” says De Winter. “It will be a major feather in our cap.”
When it comes to completed projects, De Winter struggles to choose just one so instead picks a selection “close to [his] heart”. The first is the Solar Hybrid Containerised Power Station that Alsa Solar developed to replace a community’s diesel generator. This was executed for Masdar Special Projects, via a tender won from renewable energy company and valued business partner Masdar.
“We took a 40ft container, reinforced it, put in insulation and built a solar system into it, which could then be dispatched to the location and set up onsite in a matter of days,” De Winter explains. “The solution requires only a very short set-up time on site, so could be extended to many more applications & geographical locations. I think it still requires some marketing, as the technology is new and people are not very aware of it.”
The second project he mentions is a Solar Pumping System it provided for Dubai Municipality to irrigate 4,000 trees at the Al Maha Desert 5 Star Resort, replacing the noisy diesel generators that used to do it. “Our solar technology brought silence back to the desert,” says De Winter. “The Solar Pumping Systems are very economical – the payback for small systems is often less than one year, and for larger ones it’s rarely more than three. They can save people a lot of money that would otherwise have gone towards diesel.”
Another notable project was the DC Solar Home System that Alsa Solar developed & installed in Helmond Province Afghanistan to provide power, light, refrigeration, fans and mobile charging for about 600 households. The company recently began working with GASCO in offering robust DC power systems for the oil & gas market.
Alsa Solar’s projects and other achievements have really started turning heads. In the 2013 Middle East Electricity Show, for example, it won the Best Innovation award for a solar pumping solution it developed to irrigate roundabouts while powering their traffic controllers. “This is a simple off-grid solution with a payback of a few months,” De Winter explains. “It keeps about 1,000 irrigation tanker trucks off the roads and allows for making our surroundings literally green at a faster pace.” The project is a good example of how Alsa Solar’s solutions can contribute to the socio-economic development of cities. De Winter hopes the award will encourage the government to “consider replacing more diesel pumping with solar pumping, especially in the western region of the UAE”.
One of Alsa Solar’s greatest achievements is founding the Emirates Solar Industry Association (ESIA), “out of a belief that we need to show the government that the industry is here, locally, and experts and solutions are here, locally,” says De Winter. ESIA provides a platform for government to interact with the industry, and enables competing solar companies to combine forces and extend their reach.
“We can give an expert baseline view to the government of what is possible and what makes sense, so that policies can be formed more efficiently and effectively,” De Winter explains. “Solar offers a great opportunity to the UAE to become an exporter of services – we see this as a business sector in the economy of our country. It is supporting our nation, creating employment, fuelling our economy and lifting our awareness for a more sustainable future.”
ESIA encompasses some of Alsa Solar’s most valued business partners. In addition to Masdar, who is providing Alsa Solar with a base load of projects, there are suppliers Hilti Emirates and PUK-Werke Middle East. “They have been very supportive in ensuring solutions are being brought to the region that are economical and help promote the use of solar,” says De Winter. “They are helping support the strong economic growth of the country by growing awareness of renewable energy.”
The future of solar in the MENA region
Thanks partly to the work of Alsa Solar and its fellow members of the ESIA, the UAE is “leading and setting the pace,” says De Winter, in the MENA region’s solar industry; particularly as other countries typically follow what is done first in Dubai. “Even if the local market is relatively small, we are showing the way and fuelling growth,” he remarks.
“Solar has a very, very bright future here. As costs keep dropping further, alternative solutions appear and the ecosystem is built. I firmly believe that solar will have a big stake in becoming the conventional way of powering this region; it is the only logical solution, and frankly there are not many valid alternatives if we are working on a level playing field. If the same subsidies were extended to renewables as what is currently given to fossil fuel electricity generation, then grid parity would already be a reality.”
Alsa Solar is playing a big part in the movement towards renewable energy, working closely with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Economic Development. The company also participates in UAE trade missions to promote its solutions to a wider market. “We think [the movement] is accelerating, but being a ‘fast’ company, we sometimes also have to pace ourselves and pull the market, rather than run ahead of it,” adds De Winter.
Alsa Solar is halfway through a three-year growth plan to spread to various countries in the MENA region, East Africa and former Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. “We are now in the second year and we’ve already undertaken trade missions to Kenya, Iraq and Afghanistan,” says De Winter. “We are one of country’s major integrators now, educating about solar in the UAE and internationalising as part of our three-year plan; it is an exciting time for us, as well as for the industry and the region.”