Jordan looks to the sun to end power struggles

Jordan looks to the sun to end power struggles
Jordan, an ideal solar energy producer, has taken giant steps to becoming less dependent on fossil fuels - but further development looks unlikely as an Israeli gas deal comes online.
4 min read
26 February, 2019
The Hamdan al-Qara mosque in Amman is equipped with 140 solar panels [AFP]

Solar panels stand proud on the rooftops of mosques, schools and houses across Jordan, reflecting an embrace of renewable energy in this resource-limited country.

Jordan has the world's third-best investment environment for clean energy projects - after Chile and India - reports Bloomberg's Climatescope 2018 Index. With more than 300 sunny days a year, and a comparatively mild climate, kingdom is also located on the planet's "solar belt".

Moreover, solar panels are exempted from shipping taxes and customs fees, which also encourages the industry's growth.

Waleed Hallaj says that all these facts inspired him to open his own company in 2014, after working for two years in the field.

"It's a great idea to be able to generate clean energy in a country that really needs it," he told The New Arab. "I'm very happy and proud of what I'm doing here."

Until 2012, Jordan used to import more than 98 percent of its energy - a huge number, especially for a country surrounded by war-torn neighbours. Electricity consumption has also risen in the past few years, not least due to increased demand from a population swollen by at least 1.4 million Syrian refugees.

In 2012, the Jordanian government endorsed the Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Law, aiming to generate 20 percent of the country's energy from renewable sources, mainly solar and wind, by 2020.

Energy expert Dr Ayyoub Abu Dayyeh says Jordan has enough solar intensity to produce even more. "What the kingdom has achieved so far is a great success," Abu Dayyeh said.

By the end of 2018, renewable energy projects produced eight percent of the kingdom's electricity consumption.

But despite the industry becoming very profitable for both investors and customers, Hallaj says it was hard to get project applications approved at the end of last year, without any explanation from officials - until a surprising announcement in January officially stopped the ministry of energy taking applications for projects with a capacity of more than 1MW.

However, Hala Zawati, the minister of energy and mineral resources, said move was only temporary - until the ministry fixes all the "technical challenges" caused by increasing renewable energy projects.

Abu Dayyeh says he thinks the decision is likely permanent.

"We got a blessing that the governments didn't know how to appreciate; they work according to short-term strategies; which is the main reason of why we are here today," he added.

Abu Dayyeh also criticized the fifteen-year Israeli-Jordanian gas deal, which the Jordanian government signed "without thinking if the country will need this gas all these years".

"The country will have to keep importing gas from Israel for fifteen years whether it needs it or not; this is why it had to reduce some energy sources, and this source unfortunately happened to be the solar power," Abu Dayyeh concluded.

In 2016, Jordan's government-owned National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) signed a $10 billion deal with Noble Energy, which owns 39 percent of the Israeli Leviathan gas field.

Since then, a national peaceful activism movement has been formed, calling on the government to cancel the agreement. The movement often holds protests near the office of the prime minister in Amman.

EDAMA, a Jordanian NGO specialising in energy and the environment, criticised the ministry's "big, surprising" decision - taken without the cooperation of concerned parties - was a "real obstacle" to renewable energy projects.

Abu Dayyeh said he could not see how the government would solve the problem: "Jordan is able to export clean energy to other countries - but neighbouring countries such as Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia don't need it at all."

Meanwhile, Jordanians are getting more aware of how good and cheap clean energy is. Many of them started switching to solar power with zero carbon emissions.

Ali Bakir, 28, said that he switched to solar power at his house by buying a solar system five months ago, which, he says, was value for money.

"I used to pay more than 50 Jordanian dinars ($70) a month for electricity; but not after I got the solar system," he told The New Arab. "I paid 6,000 JOD ($8,450) for it, but I will not pay anything more from now on, no matter how high my consumption is." It will take around ten years for Bakir's system to pay for itself, and any use after that will be profit.

Huge solar energy projects are not only used at hospitals and schools, but also at the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, according to Mohammad Hawwari, UNHCR spokesperson.

"We started generating energy from solar power for humanitarian services here in Jordan at Al-Azraq camp, and then at Al-Zaatari camp," Hawwari said.

The UNHCR used to spend more than $500,000 monthly on electricity bills - a great burden on the UN's budget. "Now we don't pay a single penny; this is great for us."

Abeer Ayyoub is a freelance journalist based in Amman.

Follow her on Twitter: @abeerayyoub