DOHA – Jean-Pierre Moreau is growing flowers in the desert.
Just 30 kilometers west of the Qatari capital of Doha, roses, gladiolus, chrysanthemum are blooming. At the request of Hamid Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, the Frenchman produces four million flowers a year, with the help of 60 employees mostly from Nepal and India.
Inside the greenhouses of Roza Hassad, which span over 55,000 square meters, it’s a far cry from the hot and rocky scenery outside. A very precise computer-managed regulation system adjusts the humidity and lighting levels every 30 seconds in each of the 16 greenhouses, recreating a tropical climate or the colder temperatures of the Netherlands, depending on the flowers.
The seeds are planted in bedrock made of coconut residue or volcanic rock and receive water drawn 100 meters deep, desalted, then charged with nutritious elements needed for their growth. Roza Hassad is a public company founded to cut down on the emirate’s flower imports.
This comes at a price – but Moreau would rather not talk about numbers. In a country where no project seems too crazy, money is not an issue and flowers are just “a first step.” “With money and the right technologies, we could grow tomatoes, peppers and all sorts of vegetables,” says Moreau who has already grown salads in the most extreme climates.
Food security is at the center of the Qatari government’s strategy presented in its “Vision 2030” plan. More than 90% of products eaten by the country’s two million residents (of which only 300,000 are Qataris) depend on imports.
In Doha’s main wholesale market, trucks unload Saudi eggplants, Lebanese or Chinese apples, Dutch tomatoes, Filipino bananas and Egyptian strawberries… And the same goes for meat and grains.
Securing food supplies
“We cannot imagine our development without securing our food resources. We support international trade but we also believe in climate change and its consequences on agriculture," says Fahad Ben Mohammed al-Attiya, president of the Qatar National Food Security Program (QNFSP). "Some countries might have to reduce their exports in the future and we cannot remain so dependent.”
The program was launched in 2008 and was created with the help of numerous international experts. It should be finalized in the coming months and fully operational in 2014. “We didn’t invest for 20 years. Our agriculture uses old methods. Productivity is weak. A big part of our harvest is lost in stock. We need to bring skills, training and technology. Many believe it’s unrealistic – I think it will be revolutionary,” he says. He thinks it’s possible to cover 60% of food supplies.
Water scarcity is another issue that needs to be resolved. This is why Qatar is building new desalination factories that will run on solar energy. “700,000 cubic meters of water are used every day by the 1,400 farms in the country, but that water, drawn underground is increasingly brackish. Our programs aims to produce five times more,” says Patrick Linke, the technical director of the QNSFP. But can the sun really be profitable when fuel in this country only cost 20 cents per liter? Authorities have remained vague about the cost and the funding of the new project.
This refocusing on local production doesn’t mean Qatar is giving up buying land abroad. “We will continue because we need to. But we will do so while making sure that property rights of local populations and farmers are respected. These are investments, not land grabbing,” assures al-Attiya.
Early December in Doha, the QNFSP president rewarded the best projects of the Land for Life initiative, which is supported by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). He reiterated his country’s ambition to create a “global alliance of arid areas” that would imply mutual assistance between member countries. “A sort of food security NATO.” The African countries that were present welcomed the idea with a mix of curiosity and interest and are waiting to see what comes next.
With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.
CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.
Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.
It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.
Abundant sunshine, low temperatures
The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.
Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.
It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.
Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park
Chinese want to expand
The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.
The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.
The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.
The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.
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