TBY talks to Ken Paton, CEO of Symtech Solar Group, on its solar operations in Yemen, the necessity of switching from gas to solar, and its work to manufacture wind turbines.

 Ken Paton
Ken Paton has over 30 years experience in senior management roles in the Middle East with particular expertise in executive and general management. He is currently the CEO of Symtech Solar Oman and CEO of Speedy International Asset Services Oman. He has an MBA from Manchester Business School in the UK.

What are your current solar operations plans in Yemen?

Yemen is where the industry will be. It is a great area for us because there is little infrastructure present. The Omani government will likely mandate a minimum of renewable energy there; it has not said if it will be 5% or 10%, though it is trying to kick off renewable energy there involving both solar and wind technology. With wind, which has no upfront investment, we can put turbines there and not be charged. We get paid not for the wind turbine but the power we sell from the wind turbine. From a profitability point of view it costs around GPB300,000 for each turbine, though over a 25-year period, the payback is anywhere between GPB7.5 and 8 million per turbine. We are looking at hundreds of them both here in Oman and in Yemen.

To what extent are you seeing businesses eager for a change into renewable power in Duqm?

There is no alternative because ultimately what will happen is that the subsidies will gradually be reduced and therefore operational costs will gradually increase. Whenever I present to an MD or GM, the hypothetical question I always put to them what our company can do for theirs: We can drastically reduce their operational expenses. We are in renewable energy; however, renewable energy is not all about winning awards, reducing one's carbon footprint, or being green. These are the positive secondary effects. We select a new technology where the main benefit is that it costs less. No one today will add to their costs just to get a green award. We have to demonstrate a return on investment that makes sense over 25 years and what we aim to do is give a payback period of four to five years, and a life cycle of the asset being at least 25 years so that we have either free or substantially reduced energy from renewable sources. It means everyone wins because we are not burning gas. At the moment, the government is burning gas for 96% of its electricity generation and the remainder comes from diesel. This is expensive and does not make sense to burn a national asset with a finite life. Instead of getting that cubic meter of gas and selling it on the market to make a profit we use it for electricity consumption, which is economic madness. The whole process needs to be rethought at the national level. The effects are seen when individuals and businesses put solar panels on their rooftops, as there are 342 days of sun, with some of the highest solar radiation rates in the world, all of which is completely untapped here.

What steps are you taking to introduce wind turbines here in Oman?

It is in its infancy here. It will be several months before we can get the manufacturing plant up; however, the fact that we will manufacture wind turbines in Oman is a major step forward. In Oman people generally live on the coast and there is a great deal of wind on the coast; however, a 2.5MW turbine makes a great deal of noise. The other side is that if one breaks down, they are expensive to repair as everything is located at the top, requiring many people and equipment to fix. Our solution is smaller: to have a dozen of them and if one has a problem then the other 11 are working. We do not have a problem with low wind as these are designed to work in low-wind situations in urban areas, and schools, hospitals, and government buildings can use them as they are not obtrusive.