SUNNY SIDE UP

Oman 2017 | ENERGY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Ken Paton, CEO of Symtech Solar Oman, on maximizing solar use, expanding abroad, and plans for the coming year.

Under what mission was Symtech Solar established, and how is it realizing its sustainable innovation mission here in Oman?

From an outside perspective, I was quite shocked to see the lack of solar uptake in Oman considering the sun shines for 320 days of the year and Oman has one of the highest solar radiances in the world. It was important for my chairman and myself to diversify into a different business sector, but one that was analogous to what we already do, which is generate electricity. As government subsidies for petrol and diesel are being reduced, government subsidies for electricity are likely the next ones in line. Recognizing that solar was a massive, untapped opportunity and the likelihood of reductions in government subsidies for electricity being combined with reduced customized service costs in this sector, it has created a perfect storm. The government has a great opportunity to encourage the uptake of rooftop solar and that is exactly what it is doing.

What are the product lines and services that Symtech offers and what industries or sectors are you looking to introduce to the technology?

We are concentrating on three main areas: rooftop solar systems for domestic, industrial, and commercial use, then solar street lighting and solar-powered water irrigation pumps. With regard to the rooftop solar sector, a survey was completed for the government two years ago that recognized that there was an opportunity for 1.44GW of electricity to be generated from domestic rooftops in Oman and one-third of that would be in Muscat. Muscat has low rise buildings and flat rooftops that are ideal for the installation of rooftop solar systems. My vision is to see solar PV panels fitted to the rooftops of villas in Oman. We are structuring it so that our installation teams will arrive at you home with everything necessary in one box. Within 36-48 hours, the panels will be connected and householders will be producing their own electricity. They will either be producing enough for their own consumption and not receiving monthly electricity bills and, if there is a feed-in tariff from the government, they can feed their excess electricity into the national grid and receive a credit for it on their monthly electricity bill. The excess electricity fed into the grid then goes to power schools, hospitals and their neighbors. After the sun goes down, the system automatically senses it and switches over to the grid. In the industrial and commercial sectors we are concentrating upon the hotels, tourism, food manufacturing and infrastructure sectors.

How will you utilize these teams to carry out your solar projects and general business plans?

The majority of our installation teams will comprise of Omani technicians, specifically Omani electricians trained here in Oman by the National Training Institute. The technicians will receive special training for installing solar systems and their competence will be approved by Symtech engineers prior to employment with us. We are an SME and we are based in Oman, although we are not the sole Symtech distributor for the Sultanate of Oman alone. We are also responsible for the MENA region and for the Eastern Coast of Africa. Symtech Oman is an SME that has recognized an opportunity and we are basing our regional operations here in Oman. Our Omani teams will form the nucleus of the installation teams out in the GCC, in MENA, and East Africa as well. We are not an Omani company that wants to stay home; this is an Omani company that sees its future in the greater MENA area and by deploying well-trained Omani installation team throughout the region we will aid the employment of more Omani-trained technicians.

Is there a specific market apart from Oman you are focusing on?

For obvious reasons, we will focusing on Yemen when the current hostilities cease. The war has resulted in the huge destruction of infrastructure, especially electricity infrastructure, and that will need to be improved. We believe this will offer an opportunity for Yemen to leap forward in technology, analogous to what happened in Africa with the uptake of mobile phones. This is highly likely to happen in Yemen also; we believe that Yemen will skip two or three generations and go straight to solar. The uptake of solar now in Sanaa and around Yemen is massive. When peace finally arrives, there will be an opportunity for Symtech Solar to assist in rapidly providing solar electricity to relieve the suffering of the people of Yemen.

What are some of the projects in the pipeline for Symtech Solar?

We have some very interesting projects in the pipeline. We are involved with providing solar solutions to new hotels, new tourist resorts located in remote desert areas, egg production facilities, a chicken farm, a dairy farm and a number of industrial users. They all have the same basic requirements, they are located some distance from the away from the national grid, they need electricity to power their facilities and they need to reduce their electricity costs. We recently won our first project with Outward Bound Oman and the solar system will be installed in February or March 2017. The Outward Bound center is located in the desert in Bidayah, approximately 3km from the nearest electrical supply. We have provided them with a totally off-grid solar solution which will provide electrical power 24 hours per day.

What needs to be done to unleash Oman's full potential in renewable energy?

The Authority for Electricity Regulation will need to promulgate specifications to allow solar power to connect to the national grid system. Currently, we are not allowed to connect anything to the grid for electrical safety reasons. We are expecting the AER to issue specifications for equipment and standards for installation by early 2017. Until then, we will concentrate on solar street lighting, solar powered water irrigation pumps, and totally off-grid solar systems. Incentives from the government, often called a feed-in tariff, would certainly assist in the rapid uptake in rooftop solar to achieve the government's objectives of 10% of Oman's electricity derived from renewable sources by 2020.

What is your outlook for the next 12 months?

Our main priority is confirmation of additional funding. We are talking to financial institutions and potential investors and I am confident that we will be successful. Our second priority is building our management and installation teams and having them in place prior to the AER issuing their standards. The business plans for Oman, Yemen, and the UAE are already complete.