Can solar energy save the world’s football elite?

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DOHA: In a decade from now, the world’s best football players will be arriving in this city to compete in what will be the 23rd World Cup.  The competition is always played in the northern summer – so as not to bother the world’s premium club competitions – but in 2022 they will be facing a considerable challenge: how to compete in a country with an average temperature of 36°C in June, and peaks occasionally above 40°C.

The answer from the Qatari officials hosting the games has been simple: they will simply turn the air-conditioning on, in 12 outdoor stadiums (none will be enclosed at this stage), and power the lot with solar.

For a country with negligible solar installations that seems a mighty ask, but the Qataris are determined to do it. Over the next few years, they have one of the world’s more ambitious solar development plans, to install 1,800MW of solar power – both solar PV and solar thermal, by 2020.

The country intends to hold a tender for the first 200MW project – which will be a combination of solar PV and solar thermal technologies – in the next three months. A smaller plant piloting various technologies was opened this week. And Qatar also plans to build a $1 billion polysilicon plant as well to supply enough silicon for 6.5GW of solar PV capacity to the local and global markets.

Not that its motives are entirely driven by a green-based solution to the comfort of football players. As Energy Minister Dr Mohamed Saleh al-Sada told the local newspaper today, “we want to produce more clean energy to save burning natural gas in power plants, which we can sell at higher prices globally.”

On that score, it has exactly the same motivation as the neighbouring Saudis, who intend to spend $100 billion in solar and other low carbon investments in the next 20 years so they can sell more oil rather than subsidising its use at home. The project pays for itself.

As for the World Cup, there was an impressive display at the Sustainability Expo that is running in conjunction with the annual climate change talks. A total of 12 stadia will be needed, all with solar air-conditioning. Three have already been built, and will need to be retrofitted.

According to the local official, the plan is to blast cold air into the stadium to lower the temperature at the playing surface to around 27°C. Those high in the stands will have to make do with 35°C (hot air rises).

Outside, it could be even more of  challenge. Each team (there were 24 at the last World Cup) will have elaborate indoor playing facilities, but full-pitch facilities will be outside, and not air-conditioned.

The public might find it tough too. “We can’t air condition the whole country,” the official said. Worse, the strict ban on alcohol means you won’t even be able to have a cold beer in the afternoon heat. Perhaps that’s a good thing at a football tournament.  

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