Published on August 17th, 2011
Solar Energy Making a World of Difference
Environmena Sunny days and a very bright future!
Enviromena was created in 2007, on the back of the Masdar Initiative, a multibillion dollar renewable energy initiative spearheaded by the Abu Dhabi Government. The company was envisioned by leader and savvy entrepreneur, Sami Khoreibi. As Enviromena’s Chief Executive Officer and a founding partner of the company, Sami and his extraordinary team have succeeded in creating Enviromena, as the largest solar developer in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
In just under three years of operations, the company has proven highly successful, securing a series of premier solar installation projects, including the largest PV solar power plant ever built in the MENA region. Enviromena has attracted a broad base of leading international cleantech investors including Masdar, Good Energies Invest and zouk Ventures. Mr. Khoreibi has assembled a team of talented solar experts from around the globe, growing the size of the company seven fold since its 2007 founding.
Under Sami’s direction Enviromena has become one of the first CarbonNeutral companies in the UAE, and he was awarded “Entrepreneur of the Year” for 2008 at the Alternative Energy Awards. In 2009 Mr. Khoreibi was named by Arabian Business as one of the “Top 30 Under 30î young Arab business leaders and the company received the ìPower Plant Operator of the Year” and “Energy Efficiency Awards” at the Middle East Power and Water Awards.
Previous to Enviromena, Mr. Khoreibi was a founding partner of Candax Energy Inc., an international upstream oil and gas company which was publicly listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 2005. As an Abu Dhabi based energy entrepreneur, Mr. Khoreibi’s key focus is developing clean, carbon neutral alternative energy projects throughout the MENA region.
With enthusiasm and a thirst for understanding the transition from oil and gas to new energy, we had the chance to interview Sami Khoreibi about the journey of a world-class leader who took his dream into reality.
OGM: Why did you feel the need to set up an organization that could produce and supply solar power technology in the MENA region?
Sami: Successful industry growth requires public private partnerships and we recognized there was a significant gap in the market – with an absence of companies grown in the region focused on creating a renewable industry. Well known international companies continue to do an excellent job growing the skill set outside of the region, however Enviromena
wanted to focus on building a grass roots market within the MENA region and build an industry, workforce and skill set within the region.
OGM: Solar energy is abundant within the MENA region, and very simple initiatives such as integrating photovoltaic systems into architecture, could provide huge amounts of energy to cities. Why do has the technology been available for many years now, yet it was Enviromena who became one of the first successful companies to capitalize on this?
Sami:There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, the technology is constantly being reviewed and updated to ensure maximum efficiency and outputs, and in the last few years significant advancements have been made. The photovoltaic solar technology used by Environmena is mature to a point where it can be fully integrated within buildings to provide a large component of a buildings energy requirements and Enviromena has successfully adapted the technology for the unique climatic conditions of the MENA region. Sustainable building design, both in the Middle East and globally, is a relatively new phenomenon and this may be a contributing factor as to why the technology has not been fully utilized in the past, however this mindset is rapidly changing.
Another obvious reason is the cost of the technology. The price of integrating renewable energy technologies such as photovoltaics into building facades (but also in general), has decreased rapidly over the last few years and is at a point where it is becoming more competitive with conventional energy sources and building materials, with some countries already achieving grid parity. In the past, both these factors caused a delay in the implementation of building integrated solar design, however now that these aspects have successfully negotiated, I believe the future is very exciting in terms of the utilization of renewable technologies within building design.
OGM: Do you feel conventional energy companies are will support new forms of energy?
Sami:Yes, I think new energy is actually presenting itself as an opportunity not only for oil and gas companies, but also for energy companies overall. For example, Abu Dhabi is best known as an oil and gas producing nation with an energy based economy. Therefore a natural and logical progression is to diversify the economy and invest in renewable energy.
Today, Abu Dhabi has a strong understanding and investments in the conventional energy industry: oil production, gas production and power plants in the conventional sense. Thus a logical next step is to re-invest some of the revenues and some of the profits from these industries into newer types of energy and alternative energy projects. Abu Dhabi has started to capitalize on this by making significant investments into numerous renewable energy technologies, particularly photovoltaic solar and concentrated solar power.
Numerous parallels can be found between renewable and conventional energy projects. For example, if you look at wind energy and some of the offshore wind projects taking place in the region, we see there is a similar skill set and a lot of overlap between renewable and conventional energy. For example, both have long building cycles and both require a large upfront investment to see recurring revenues. If you study some of the investments made in the renewable space, a lot of this has been spearheaded and developed by oil and gas companies and oil and gas rich nations. Therefore I believe progressive oil and gas companies see renewable energy as an opportunity.
OGM: Is Enviromena developing new solar panel technology, or are you mainly focused on ensuring people make use of the technology that’s already available?
Sami:At Enviromena, we call ourselves technology agnostic as we don’t invest in any technologies. Enviromena is a solar integrator and as such we approach a potential client and identify their power requirement needs. After this we utilize our network of leading international suppliers and our team of engineers design, install, operate and maintain a solar power plant. Thus Enviromena’s service and scope begins just after the manufacturing process, and it is our job to ensure maximum performance output of the chosen system.
We’re also fortunate to be able to gain access to some of the latest cutting edge technologies through our investors, some of the world’s leading capital venture firms who have made wise investments in a number of renewable energy technologies in the photovoltaic space.
Being based in Abu Dhabi we are competing against some of the lowest priced conventional energy in the world. So as an Abu Dhabi based solar company, I think our biggest challenge is one of our biggest skill sets, and that is being able to maximize the efficiency of a system we build, doing it at the lowest possible cost. Despite a number of very ambitious targets in place within the Middle East, there are currently no direct subsidies in place, however this is something we really hope to see in the future.
We are building solar power plants in a part of the world that has an abundance of sun, which is ideal, but at the same time has an abundance of low cost energy, which is a serious challenge, and that really makes us focused on efficiency and decreasing costs, finding ways to continuously maximize how much output we’re getting, based on how many dollars we’re spending. I think this is very important not just within Abu Dhabi, not just for Enviromena, but for everyone involved within the solar energy industry. At the end of the day what we sell is power, and we need to make sure that we sell that power at the lowest possible costs, because although there are a number of positive government initiatives and there are a number of corporations focused on the responsibility of minimizing their carbon footprint, when the end user plugs in their cell phone charger or turns on their coffee machine, they often don’t think about where that energy comes from. They’re just thinking about how much it costs, and as such we have to make sure we become one of the most competitive forms of energy in the future.
OGM: When you talk about low cost energy and your competitors, are you referring to oil and gas companies in the region?
Sami:That’s correct. Oil and gas is very low cost, based on the fact that we are sitting on a very large percentage of the world reserves here in the GCC. However the true cost of energy is not being realized as the cost of actually subsidizing the energy each way through the value chain is huge. This is without taking into account the bottom line perspective, which includes the environmental impact of burning hydrocarbons.
Today there are billions, if not tens-of-billions of dollars being spent throughout the GCC on subsidizing power to the end user. Solar energy doesn’t have these costs and if you take a look at the value and potential of exporting our energy to other parts of the world and utilizing the abundance of renewable energy that we have, solar becomes a much more competitive case. Something very exciting from Enivromena’s perspective is that the true cost of energy is starting to be recognized, and we consider these all reverse subsidies.
Unlike the cost of solar energy which is constantly being driven down as wide scale implementation increases, conventional energy prices continue to rise across the region as end users experience higher oil and gas prices and power tariffs. This is good news for solar power as if we start to see the most minimal of subsidies introduced into the renewable energy space, I think the future is very bright for solar energy.
OGM: For you Sami, what is the most exciting project Enviromena is currently involved in?
Sami: Probably what many people recognize as the most exciting project in the solar space in the region is the 10MW solar power plant that Enviromena built and completed for Masdar in May 2009. This was a very exciting project for us. Enviromena was the first company and Masdar the first client to build a utility scale solar power plant in the Middle East, and North Africa. 10 megawatts is a very large plant, particularly given the relatively new market in the Middle East and represents the largest grid connected solar plant in the Middle East and North Africa, with 87,000 panels over 223,000 square metres. The plant utilizes two technologies, and in many ways was a litmus test for the potential of solar energy not just in Abu Dhabi, but the region. If you take a look at the natural environment throughout the gulf, there are very simil arconditions: high heat, desert conditions across the region. Enviromena has now been operating the plant for over a year and we can confidently say that this technology works in the region.
Take a look at the operations and maintenance schedule that we pursue after the installation; over the next 25 years, we’re seeing that year-on-year not only are we achieving the performance we expected, but we are also seeing that it is very straightforward and sustainable to operate and maintain these panels too. Minimal water use and minimal operating and maintenance expenses help to make solar a more competitive technology relative to some conventional sources which have very fluctuating operating and maintaining costs.
OGM: What is involved in operating and maintaining these plants?
Sami: Sustainability is an important aspect of our business and as such we attempt to use sustainable maintenance methods wherever possible. We maintain our solar power systems without the use of water and implement a dry brush method carried out manually by only a few personnel. The panels are cleaned on a regular basis and we constantly strive to monitor the most efficient cleaning method. Our approach here is again from an economic and ecological perspective to maximize output, while minimizing costs. That’s what we’re doing with the dry brush method, and that’s what’s very exciting for the solar industry here, because in the desert where you have huge amounts of land and huge amounts of sunshine, one thing you don’t have a lot of is water. How the dust would impact the solar power plant was always a question we had to consider, however we have found that by keeping the panels clean, the impact is extremely minimal and by using a sustainable cleaning method the case for operating solar systems is very compelling.
OGM: What is your vision for the future: how do you see the transformation happening from our current economy, to a new-age sustainable world?
Sami: It’s a good question, and I think we took a very realistic approach at Enviromena, understanding that while solar and renewables are currently a complimentary part of the energy portfolio, they have the greatest future growth factor, yet still make up a minority at the moment.
If you take a look into the future 25 years from now, there is a strong possibility that the majority of the energy we see will be coming from zero carbon and renewable resources, particularly given the tremendous investment we’ve seen from the private sector and governments in the development of renewable technologies.
The plan for the year 2020 is a good example, where in a place like Abu Dhabi, the achievement of the 7% renewable energy target that was set last year, translates into around 1.5 Gigawatts of installed renewable capacity. Saudi Arabia has announced a 10% renewable energy target by 2020, which means 7.5 Gigawatts of solar installed capacity, and there are a number of other very ambitious targets set throughout the region.
I will just speak on the region for where we envision the future at this point in time, and I think by 2020 if these targets are to be met, which we believe they can be, we’re going to see tens of Gigawatts of renewable capacity being installed. Compared to where we stand today that is hugely exciting.
OGM: How do you see Enviromena playing a major role in the energy industry? Can you give us a brief outline of your business development structure over the coming years?
Sami: Our business development strategy today is very much contingent on progressive government policies. If you look at our work to date, Enviromena set up its headquarters in Abu Dhabi in 2007. Why did this happen? Because the Abu Dhabi government announced an extremely ambitious initiative: Masdar. Our belief in this initiative has proven correct in terms of having installed 10 megawatts already, with a 7% renewable energy target for the future announced, and the development of a very exciting industry in our own back yard here in Abu Dhabi.
Our goal is what we are today, and what we hope to continue to be; the region’s leading solar power developer. We want to continue designing, supplying and installing solar power systems throughout the region, being the first mover in different parts of the region. You have to be a little ahead of the curve, but our aim is to be an early responder and become involved at an early stage of development in parts of the region where government policies are very positive.
Saudi Arabia represents a large and very exciting market place moving forward and Enviromena is actively involved in the Saudi market. There are a number of other parts of the region where Enviromena is actively involved in both projects and setting up the infrastructure to have fully operating entities.
OGM: What inspires you to do what you do? Have you always been interested in the energy industry?
Sami:There are a few personal motivations that led me to the alternative energy industry. First and foremost I was involved in a company in the conventional energy space before (oil and gas production) and through this I learned a lot about the energy industry in general. We continue to see population growth and continued energy demand, and if you take a look at the energy industry in itself, it is by far the most involved industry in the world. Energy serves as an input for everything else; from the advertising industry to refined oil and gas products, throughout that diverse space of industries, energy is always an input.
You always have to turn your light on to go into your office or get a bus to work, whatever it may be, energy is somehow involved. I was instantly attracted to being involved in a industry that has such a huge impact and so much potential both for positive and negative. I’m fortunate to be involved in the positive side of it and believe that the renewable space today is hugely important for sustainable development, not just for the region but globally as well.
I’m an entrepreneur in spirit, and my friends always joke about me being a bit of a techie. I love the fact that you can marry the energy industry with the high-tech industry in such a way where you really affect both lives and industry. It’s amazing to go out, for example, to the Masdar 10 Megawatt power plant, to see these panels just lying there as if they’re sunbathing, and really they’re producing enough energy for around 6,000 homes.
I think it’s incredible that this technology continues to progress and become more efficient, and if we can even in the smallest way be involved with this industry, and even I think in a larger way, which we’re very excited to be part of today, and be a leader in the industry in the region, then to me that’s very inspirational and what keeps us going into the office everyday and pushing forward into a very exciting market space.
OGM: If you were to say one thing to the people of today, what would it be? What do you hope to contribute to our world?
Sami: There are two related messages that I would like to come out of this. The first one I think is the willingness to jump right into something, which is what we did with the founding of Enviromena. We had a team of founding partners who all heard about this initiative in Abu Dhabi and said “this sounds like a good opportunity, lets dive right in and believe in the potential for a very exciting industry”. Having known quite a bit about Abu Dhabi, visiting and learning about the region, I feel generally when you hear about these commitments to things in the energy industry, they happen here.
That feeds into the second thing I learned, which is patience. When you’re in a very young industry such as renewables is when compared to other industries, you need to understand we are in a part of the world that is just starting to develop this technology. There is a lot of education that has to happen, and there is a lot of policies that are slow to move and shift, but as long as you believe that this will continue happening and you’re already in the thick of things, you should be patient and hang in there while things happen. I believe patience pays off, and feel Enviromena is a great example that if you are willing to believe in these initiatives, commit and understand things are not going to happen overnight, success is possible and definitely worth waiting for.
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