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Pathways for a Sustainable Future: Insights from Ghada Rahal, energy professional, on MENA's Energy Transition

Author: Angelik Nehme


In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, geographical and resource disparities intersect with critical environmental challenges, threatening the region’s future . Although there is a rising amount of alarming news, COP28 in Dubai has spurred significant climate action across MENA, with governments and businesses in the region now committing to ambitious net-zero targets. Moreover, environmental and energy professionals are employing their skills to help mitigate the impact of climate change, including Ghada Rahal, an energy field expert in MENA.


A personal Journey: Moving Towards a Sustainable Future

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The urgency of climate change necessitates careers that reconcile personal fulfillment with meaningful planetary action. Rahal's work blends both. "The world is buzzing with a need for change," Ghada highlights. Like most engineering graduates, she began working as a site mechanical engineer. To contribute towards a cleaner planet and become an "energy warrior," she pursued a master's in energy studies at the American University of Beirut. Ghada's work began with photovoltaics, a new field in Lebanon, before joining the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation. In Dubai, she now manages energy performance contracts and reports on sustainability, focusing on green energy and energy efficiency.


Ups and Downs in the MENA Renewable Energy Landscape


The Challenges


The MENA region presents unique challenges for renewable energy and sustainability. Ghada discusses the lack of green energy awareness, high upfront costs of renewable energy technologies, and prevalent fossil fuels as hindrances. "Solar panels and wind turbines can be expensive to install, discouraging investment," she explains. Furthermore, Rahal emphasizes water scarcity as a pressing but overlooked issue and identifies political obstacles, such as  the absence of adequate regulations.


The Opportunities


On a positive note, Rahal highlights that MENA boasts abundant solar and wind resources, positioning it as a global leader in renewable energy deployment, stating that some governments are now fostering the competitiveness of renewable energy sources. She states that with rising demand from businesses and consumers, the region's renewable market is gaining momentum, offering significant job opportunities. She believes in the region's future, conveying that "by tackling the challenges and capitalizing on these opportunities, the MENA Region can be a leader in the energy transition." 


The Role of Women: Energy Transition Accelerators 


Rahal strongly believes women are catalysts in the energy transition, but the field has been male-dominated.


"The majority of women in the energy field are on the administrative side, fewer are on the technical side, and even fewer occupy leadership positions"

Rahal marks women's growing presence as a "breath of fresh air" in the sector. "Women are usually at the forefront of local initiatives in our communities, so they are well-positioned to understand the energy needs of those communities," she adds. Rahal emphasizes how inclusivity allows for diverse solutions otherwise overlooked by a homogenous team.


Adapting before Adopting: Tailoring Policies to Realities


"MENA is one of the most affected regions by climate change, especially because we already have water scarcity, desertification, and rising sea levels," she says, highlighting the need for tailored policies. Ghada underscores the region-specific challenges, targets, and resources, ranging from skilled labour in Asia to established European markets and renewable resources in Africa and Latin America. She argues that the pathway to net zero demands locally tailored solutions, as energy resources and infrastructures vary among countries. She uses the example of how European policies rely on costly technologies, which may require adjustments for affordability in MENA. 


Collaboration: Catalysing the Green Energy Transition


Investments have played a crucial role in shaping MENA's green initiatives. For example, The EU invested 3.7 million Euro in 2 Circular, a UNIDO project for green and circular Economy in Lebanon, and this project entails boosting resource efficiency and cleaner production in Lebanon's food industry. Rahal highlights the importance of transferring knowledge and expertise from nations with advanced renewable energy technologies to developing countries, by sharing best practices, technical know-how, and successful project designs.


She emphasizes the role of financial mobilization, which may accelerate development projects and make green energy more accessible for everyone. In addition, "developed countries can share their experiences with risks, which helps developing regions manage and not repeat them," she suggests. Finally, she discusses the vitality of capacity building, which was always the last step whenever they received a fund during her work in Lebanon.


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Closing the Gap and Moulding the Future: Strategies for Sustainable Energy Evolution in MENA 


Bridging the Gap


MENA countries vary from one to another in terms of geography, economic development, environmental challenges, and more. Rahal highlights critical strategies to bridge this gap, discussing financing through grant programs, low-interest loans, and public-private partnerships. She emphasizes investing in infrastructure development, like enhancing grids. Furthermore, Rahal underscores the need for a supportive government framework to implement regulations and incentivize green energy investments.“There is a focus in MENA on phasing out fossil fuels, so their allocated funds may be redirected towards renewables,” she adds. Additionally,  the vitality of enhancing energy efficiency and reducing demand, can be proved through the example she offers on pairing solar systems with energy-efficient appliances and LED lighting to optimize usage. 


Future of the Region


The MENA region hosted COP27 in Egypt and COP28 in Dubai. During COP28, around 125 countries aimed to triple their capacity by 2030, putting MENA under a magnifying glass and pressuring it to keep up. Ghada highlights that the MENA region is expected to shift towards renewable sources significantly because of global commitments. "The cost of solar is dropping, which is a great indicator that we are progressing and a huge economic advantage," she reiterates. Rahal sees the region evolving and shifting towards renewable energy, highlighting the numerous events regarding hydrogen in the area.

"While fossil fuels will remain prevalent, renewables have started to play an increasingly dominant role"

Shining Examples in Promoting Renewables 


Upon reflecting on her knowledge and experience, Rahal recalls a few successful examples promoting renewable energy in the region, including Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, as Dubai is targeting to roll-out 5 GW of capacity from it. She also mentions Masdar City, a purpose-built city in Abu Dhabi, which utilizes energy efficient building designs and promotes electrical vehicles. Additionally, Rahal sheds light on Noor, a concentrated solar power plant in Morocco, and one of the largest in the world.


Network, Network, Network!

 

Forging Connections 


Building connections is crucial for harnessing innovation and progress in the energy sector. Rahal believes in the power of networking. She is part of the Future Energy Leaders program in the World Energy Council, which gathers passionate energy professionals from around the globe. "We work on regional projects including MENA, Latin America, and Europe. It provides a great space to grow and share expertise," she explains, urging young professionals to apply for it. She also participated in the Global Women Forum last November, which highlighted the role of women leaders in energy transitions. 


Guidance for Young Energy Professionals


The energy sector is witnessing a lot of activity, especially in renewable energy. In 2023, clean energy experienced a surge globally, with a 50% increase in renewable capacity added compared to the previous year. Moreover, many young individuals are trying to pursue a career in this field. For aspiring energy professionals, Ghada highlights the vitality of passion, networking, practical experience, and continuous education. "Stay passionate and motivated. Always seek more knowledge. It is a great sector and progressing, so keep up with the market trends," she encourages. Moreover,  she urges the energy field enthusiasts to "think beyond technology," mentioning how the Energy Congress she attended in April addressed the need to humanize energy, as the energy transition is about social impact and creating equitable, affordable, and clean access to energy.


Towards a Better Future


Ghada's insights help make sense of the intricacies within the renewable energy realm in MENA. Some of our main takeaways include the need for case-specific solutions, proper financing, international cooperation, increased awareness, and inclusive approaches. While countries within MENA have different specificities and are at different places in the renewable energy transition, Rahal is a cautious, realistic, optimist. She emphasizes that although the possibility of curbing climate change for a greener future in the region  exists, it requires immediate effort.


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Ghada Rahal interviewed by Angelik Nehme for The Conference Corner. Featured image provided by Ghada Rahal.


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