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©KAUST 2023; Xavier Pita

Saudi Arabia’s time to shine in solar energy use

Cutting-edge research into new technologies for photovoltaic cells, a favorable climate and strong collaborations with industry are key factors in Saudi Arabia’s development of solar power.

Saudi Arabia’s hot and sunny climate brings both opportunities and challenges for the expansion of solar energy. While the abundance of sunshine means that solar panels can be generating high yields of electricity, the harsh conditions contribute to degradation of photovoltaic panels.

Under its Vision 2030 initiative, Saudi Arabia aims to deliver 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030. The country’s Deputy Minister of Localization, Local Content and Risk Management at the Ministry of Energy, Fuad Mosa, told at a 2023 KAUST research conference that low-cost solar would be an important part of the country’s focus on renewable energy.

KAUST’s Stefaan De Wolf believes there is a great opportunity for cheap and abundant photovoltaics and other renewable sources of energy, such as wind, to electrify the country’s energy sector. “There are huge opportunities for Saudi Arabia, thanks to its abundant solar irradiance,” he says.

KAUST Professor Stefaan De Wolf is a leading expert in photovoltaic technology. His research on solar cells is contributing to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to transition from carbon-based energy to renewable energy. ©KAUST 2023; Anastasia Serin

Ted Sargent from Northwestern University, USA, speaking at the KAUST research conference, said that Saudi Arabia had three critical advantages when it comes to deploying photovoltaic technology.

The first is KAUST’s expertise in tandem solar cells. “Tandem solar cells are critically important to increase efficiency, and KAUST is one of three institutions in the world leading development of this transformational technology,” says Sargent.

The second advantage, Sargent believes, is the opportunity to generate more energy through bifacial photovoltaic modules, which capture direct illumination as well as reflected light from the ground.

“Sand and engineered backsheets provide a way to scatter the abundant solar radiation, and the country also has a strategic advantage because KAUST is at the forefront of this technology, particularly in combination with tandems,” he says.

Finally, in the area of integrated photovoltaics — where photovoltaics are incorporated into the building envelope — Sargent believes KAUST scientists will also contribute. “To be accepted, integrated photovoltaic needs to take account of design principles, being able to make conformable technologies and being able to control the color of cells. KAUST has an advantage because some of the leaders and developers of the molecules that enable semi-transparent photovoltaics are here.”

While much progress has been made in photovoltaics research, the global market is still almost exclusively based on crystalline silicon photovoltaics.

De Wolf says other technologies, such as tandem cells, are still emerging. Research at KAUST focuses on these emerging technologies, closing the gap to commercialization, as well as the specific challenges for photovoltaics in hot and sunny climates. “You get much more electricity for your money if you install a PV system in Saudi Arabia, compared to Europe for example, but it’s a harsh climate because of the temperature and the UV irradiation.”

“Other technologies, such as tandem cells, are still emerging.”

To test performance and how to choose the best technology for the environment, KAUST runs a test field in collaboration with ACWA Power, the major developer, investor and operator of renewable projects in Saudi Arabia and a key player in the installation of photovoltaic power plants.

“We look at different state-of-the-art technologies and monitor which one is giving the highest energy yield for a given investment over a certain time,” explains De Wolf. “Every year, module efficiency in industry increases by about 0.5 percent so it is important to keep assessing these new technologies.”

“Importantly, from an R&D perspective, the module cost itself is less than 40 percent of the total cost. This means that if we can make a better module, with a slightly higher processing cost, we can get a huge leverage by getting more electricity for the same investment,” he explains.

“Importantly, from an R&D perspective, the module cost itself is less than 40 percent of the total cost.”

Researchers in De Wolf’s team are working on bifacial cells combined with tandem technology. They have shown efficiency in the lab up to 32 percent (i.e., 32 percent of photons are converted to electricity), compared to current commercial modules, which are 22-24 percent. “It’s a premium technology with high performance, and this is key for the local environment,” says De Wolf. “The more sun there is, the more beneficial it is to go to the best possible technology.”

ACWA Power VP – Renewables Technical Services, Jose Barragan, also remarks on the rapid improvements in solar technology.

“In the projects we are developing today, the modules are more efficient and have a higher capacity than even a couple of years ago,” he says.

“In future, I think we are going to see more reliable modules in terms of their resistance to degradation, a continued increase in performance and a move toward perovskite, and other solutions that will continue to increase efficiency and reduce price.”

Barragan also highlights the increasing importance of artificial intelligence to enable operators to predict problems in their plants. “We carry out drone surveys of our solar plants and, using machine learning, over time we can identify potential issues and carry out preventive maintenance.

“The collaboration between KAUST and all their fundamental knowledge about the technology and our team who are working on a commercial project and want to innovate – it is a really a powerful combination,” concludes Barragan.