This section analyses the strengths and weaknesses of renewable energy initiatives from the perspective of the actors involved on the premise that, if managed properly, renewable energy initiatives are likely to proliferate in the future. This section uses seven semi-structured interviews with representatives from the five selected renewable energy initiatives (see Sect. 3), as well as secondary data sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles, governmental documents, and newspaper articles. It presents the results from the adoption of three concepts of the SNM approach—learning processes, actors’ networking, and visioning (see Sects. 2 and 3)—to the selected initiatives.
A focus on technical and economic learning processes
According to Van der Laak et al. , a learning process is considered good when it is (a) broad, i.e., focusing not only on techno-economic optimisation but also on alignment between the technical (e.g., technical design and infrastructure) and the social (e.g., user preferences, regulation, and cultural meaning) and (b) reflexive, i.e., there is a focus on questioning underlying assumptions such as social values and the willingness to change the course if the technology does not match these assumptions .
Based on seven semi-structured interviews conducted in 2014 with representatives of five selected renewable energy initiatives in Oman, it appears that, while the learning processes are diversified, they have been predominantly focused on assessing technical and economic dimensions of renewable energy technological employment. They have not extended this process into social and institutional dimensions to a significant degree, which is observable in all four types of renewable energy initiatives investigated by this paper—i.e., projects established by the government, a national oil company, scientific research, and individual investors.
Investigating technological performance in Oman’s unique environmental conditions—such as dust, high temperatures, and humidity—was the main concern of the 6 MW concentrator photo voltaic project, the Mazyonah 303 kW solar project, as well as academic studies (see Sect. 5). It had been reported (interview 7) that collecting data to measure the potential for solar energy use is a prerequisite to start any new renewable energy business in Oman:
Before starting the business in the country, meteorological stations were installed in different areas around the country, such as Ajayez, Mazyonah, Smail, and Muscat, to monitor the DNI (measured every 10 min). The data have shown a high potential for solar energy use in Oman, especially in Hayma and Mazyoonh (these are internal areas away from the coast). In Muscat, the DNI is approximately 600, while, in Hayma, it is about double the number at 1100. (Interview 7)
Moreover, interviewee 5 reported that in dealing with the unique environmental conditions in Oman:
… we want to learn how we can deal with renewable energy in an environment like Oman. Al-Mazyona is an area with high temperatures, sun, desert, dust and is off-grid. We want to learn how to technically, regulatory, legally and financially manage such projects. (Interview 5).
As reported from the published articles, Albadi et al.’s  study on the 50 kW solar PV rooftop initiative, for example, focused on determining the engineering standards and realistic constraints of the design to estimate the annual energy output and cost per kWh of electricity generated from a specific PV system. Similarly, the main interest behind the 7 MW solar-enhanced oil recovery (EOR) project was to monitor its performance in steam production and investigate its technological output and dispatch reliability .
However, a few interviewed representatives emphasised the importance of gathering data on other dimensions, such as regulatory, policy, and finance-related lessons, along with the technical and economic aspects of technology implementation, which is particularly true of the Al-Mazyona 303 kW solar project (interviews 12 and 13). Social aspects, such as consumers’ acceptance of technologies, do not appear to be given enough attention by the latter project’s representatives. Interviewees indicated their concerns regarding certain institutional challenges that constrain the large-scale implementation of renewable energy technologies in Oman. These include projects’ long-term approval processes (Interview 4) and the high subsidies allocated for the conventional sources of electricity (Interview 7).
While there is an intent to learn from pilot projects, the communication of lessons does not go beyond the online publication of results. For example, Albadi et al.’s  study on the 50 kW solar PV rooftop initiative and Bierman et al.’s  study of the 7 MW solar-enhanced oil recovery (EOR) project, among other academic publications (see, for example, [17, 62,63,64,65,66,67], were discussed in detail in Sect. 5. Most of the lessons learnt by individual actors are not disseminated or discussed between one another. A little evidence for the bidirectional communication of lessons between renewable energy actors themselves or between renewable energy actors and government authorities was found. The representative of the 6 MW concentrator photo voltaic (CPV) project, for instance, indicated that there is difficulty in establishing a direct interaction with governmental actors and academics to communicate the learning outcomes of their projects (Interview 7):
This information was presented to official authorities as a source of data to be analysed so that possible strategies could be developed to increase the promotion of renewable energy within the country. However, the policies supporting the renewable energy are not clear. (Interview 7)
Others claimed that the aim of the company is to install replicas of the solar project in different areas that belong to the licensed company. However, delays have been experienced in project approval, including the installation of the main project (Interview 4), due to the limited data on the cost and benefits of renewable energy projects, which need to be communicated with the government.
In terms of academic research, the scene appears to be different. Academic investigation has shifted the focus from techno-economic aspects towards, albeit narrowly, assessing policy and social aspects of renewable energy adoption in Oman. Between 1995 and 2015, 15 scientific publications expressed concern with the identification of policy instruments that can promote the implementation of renewable energy in Oman (Fig. 2). In 2009, for example, a total of seven peer-reviewed journals were produced, and policy was mentioned in only three publications: 13 mentions of policy in , 25 mentions in , and only 3 mentions in . Between 1995 and 2015, only two articles focused on assessing the level of awareness and attitude towards renewable energy in the country, including people’s attitudes towards considering the use of solar thermoelectric refrigerators  as well as governmental awareness of and prevailing attitudes towards renewable energy .
Evolving but immature actor networks
According to Van der Laak et al. , social networks are considered good when the network is broad (including firms, users, policy makers, scientists, and other relevant actors). In Oman, despite the short history of renewable energy development, there is an indication that networks of actors in the field of renewable energy are diverse and evolving. The social network started small with research institutes as the main actors; gradually, governmental and private investors have become involved, and the number of actors increased. The diversity of actors’ networks can be reflected in the five analysed renewable energy initiatives. This paper classifies three different spheres of actor networks observable in the five analysed renewable energy initiatives: actor networks at the governmental level (including examples of actors representing the Mazyoonah and Majan projects), actor networks at the oil industry level, and actor networks at the private sector level. These are discussed subsequently.
In this first sphere of actor networking at governmental level, as observed in the two governmental-led projects, Majan and Mazyonah, the actors involved in developing these projects enjoyed direct networking with access to governmental financial and technical resources (especially in the Mazyonah project). While the state-owned Rural Areas Company has undertaken full responsibility in the construction of a 303 kW project in the rural area of Mazyonah, its actors are in direct contact with those in the incumbent regime—specifically, actors in the Authority for Electricity Regulation, because the project was established under the AER’s recommendations (interviews 5 and 6). The installation of renewable energy projects by the Rural Areas Company was directly supported by newly established policy regulations that oblige rural area investors to prioritise renewables unless they are proven to be technically or economically unfeasible.
In comparison, although it was installed by a state-owned electricity distribution company, representatives of the Majan solar rooftop project have indicated difficulties in receiving approval for the project from the incumbent regime actors in the AER. Project approval was mainly delayed, because there is no element in the power sector law supporting the uptake of renewables, and the licensed electricity distribution companies are not allowed to generate their own electricity or source electricity from any providers other than the sole state-owned electricity provider in the country, Oman Power and Water Procurement company (interview 4). However, the networking of informal actors has created enough influence over governmental actors to allow the approval process to proceed.
In the second sphere of actor networks associated with the national oil company, PDO, the 7 MW solar-enhanced oil recovery (EOR) project was established as a joint venture between PDO and its international partner, GlassPoint. The Omani government has been directly involved in the finance of the project through its largest sovereign wealth fund administered by the Ministry of Finance. In 2014, Oman’s general reserve fund pledged US$53 million to support the construction of the project.Footnote 5 The project has also involved other oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, which has a 34% interest in PDO .
The third networking sphere represents private investors who have limited resources compared to governmental and national oil company investors. With no renewable energy regulatory framework (the time at which these interviews were conducted), two private investors needed governmental support to receive approval for their projects. The interviewee representing the private sector indicated that it is difficult to influence government decision-making regarding the uptake of renewable energy in Oman (interview 7).
There is ample evidence that the aforementioned network spheres have interacted with each another. In 2013, for instance, the Public Authority for Electricity and Water (governmental level) and the Research Council (research level) planned to develop a strategic renewable programme using a grant of eight million Omani Rials—despite delays in launching this programme (Interview 2)—to enable a building resource capacity in the field of renewable energy. Similarly, actors involved in building the Majan 50 kW PV project and the project developers of the Mazyonah 303 kW solar project (governmental-led projects) indicated the existing interaction with academics at a local university in the early stages of project planning and assessment (Interviews 4 and 2).
Moreover, there is an indication that actor networks are evolving. A notable example of this is the Oman Power and Water Summit (Determining the Future of Oman’s Renewable Energy Sector), which was held in May 2013. The summit offered a platform for sharing knowledge between actors representing different domains such as academia, business, utilities, and government. This knowledge-sharing platform has maintained momentum through the annual occurrence up to 2018. Other emerging networking platforms include, first, the Renewable Energy Series organised by the Oman American Business Centre in partnership with Shams Global Solutions (SGS) and Dii Desert Energy (Dii), with the aim to connect local companies in the supply chain with international developers bidding on Oman’s large solar independent power producer (IPP) projects ; second, EU-GCC Clean Energy Technology Network-led events such as the PDO-EU-GCC Clean Energy Technology Network workshop, which was held in Muscat in December 2017 and brought together project developers, financial institutions, technology leaders, industry advisers, financial experts, government representatives, policy makers, and entrepreneurs to debate the key challenges; and third, opportunities for Solar PV Rooftop business in Oman  and GlassPoint Innovation Spur, which is the first renewable energy incubator in Oman, established via coordination between GlassPoint, the Research Council, Innovation Park Muscat, Riyada, and Sharaka, which aims to support Omani renewable energy innovators .
However, social networks among renewable energy interest groups cannot be considered mature due to a lack of coordination in their ongoing efforts. As suggested by Van der Laak et al. , a social network is considered good when alignment within the network is facilitated by regular interactions between actors. In Oman, however, as reported by interviewee 6, “…there is no good cooperation (everybody is working by himself)” (Interview 12). This can be explained by the lack of leadership in coordinating the ongoing efforts in the field of renewable energy in Oman. The entity that can leverage and regulate the uptake of renewable energy in Oman is still unclear. Three different entities play a potential role in leveraging and coordinating the emerging renewable energy sector in Oman: the Public Authority for Electricity and Water (PAEW); the Authority for Electricity Regulation (AER), which is the regulator of the electricity sector in Oman; and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA). In the PAEW, a renewable energy department was established in 2013 to study the potential use of renewable electricity generation in Oman; enhance collaboration with international consultants, such as the International Agency for Renewable Energy (IRENA) and the Japanese Agency for International Cooperation (JICA); implement renewable energy pilot projects in coordination with other governmental entities; prepare national energy strategies; and enhance cooperation between renewable energy-focused entities in Oman . AER, on the other hand, has been proactive in releasing the first renewable energy policies in Oman, including a rural area renewable energy policy  and a rooftop solar PV installation scheme (in Arabic Sahim) [78, 79]. Despite its newly established renewable energy department, MECA plays a marginal role in promoting the uptake of renewable energy in Oman, because the new renewable energy department aims to survey the existing renewable energy projects, increase awareness of the advantages of renewable energy development, and encourage the installation of renewable energy projects through Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) activities under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change .
Visions of governmental, national oil company, and private investors
The process of voicing and shaping expectations is considered good when (a) an increasing number of participants share the same expectations (expectations are converging) and (b) the expectations are based on tangible results from experiments .
In Oman, the ongoing renewable energy initiatives were initiated for various reasons. Each sphere of actors—i.e., projects established by the government, a national oil company, scientific research, and individual investors—seem to work independently. For instance, the expectations of the first renewable energy pilot initiative, a 7 MW project established in 2013 (see Table 2, Sect. 5), were high and positive. The project intended to reduce the consumption of natural gas used for the operation of Enhanced Oil Recovery by the PDO and to increase the company’s profit by freeing more gas for either export or use in other sectors, such as power generation or other domestic industrial activities . Due to tangible and more reliable results from the first phase of the project, the project has been expanded to produce 1 GW of thermal energy in 2017 .
Another example is the initiation of the 303 kW solar project in Al-Mazyona, which was recommended by the Governmental Authority for Electricity Regulation (AER) following the outcomes of the first governmental study on renewable energy potential in Oman . The main aim of the project was to test the feasibility of the technology in Oman’s environmental conditions, which has elements such as dust, humidity, and high temperatures (see Sect. 5). The project researchers have also sought to learn from other dimensions, such as regulatory and financial aspects; the building of the necessary know how will allow for further expansion of the project in other areas (Interviews 1, 5, and 6). This move was partially motivated by the awareness of the increasing energy demand in Oman and the desire to reduce the pressure on domestic natural gas supplies to meet these demands. Due to high expectations, the next project in line, a 500 kW wind-based pilot project based in the rural island of Masirah, has been already approved by RAECO. The purpose of installing these pilot projects is to replace diesel-based facilities with renewable energy technologies, either to meet new demand or for further expansion of any existing facilities .
Similarly, the third initiative, a 6 MW CPV technology project established by a private company, also sought to test the technical feasibility of renewable energy technologies in Oman’s environmental conditions and the potential for investing in renewable energy in Oman. However, this project also acted as a trial to convince the government to harness available solar energy resources. The motivation for the building of the fourth project stemmed from the interests of the developing company’s CEO in investing in renewable energy technology to meet their electricity needs, as well as the desire to act as a model for renewable energy implementation in Oman (interview 4). Moreover, academic research has focused on renewable energy since 1995, long before the first governmental study on renewable energy in 2008. Scientific research was driven by the objective of identifying potential resources and renewable energy technologies in Oman, as well as by the awareness of increasing energy demands in Oman.
Since the interviews took place in 2014, a few renewable energy projects and policy initiatives have been approved. In May 2017, a policy initiative, known as ‘Sahim’ in Arabic, was launched [78, 79]. This new policy initiative allows individuals such as homeowners to install rooftop solar PV systems to produce solar electricity for use and surplus sale to electricity distribution companies. Furthermore, a Power Purchase Agreement was signed in September 2017 for the first utility-scale 50 MW wind-based renewable project in southern Oman [81, 82]. In October of the same year, these two initiatives were followed by an announcement of a national renewable energy target that aims to source 10% of the total electricity generation capacity from renewable energy sources by 2025 . A week after the announcement of a 10% renewable energy target, a consortium of international consultants was appointed to advise on the development of Oman’s first utility-scale 500 MW solar project . However, these recent developments do not appear to intersect or to have been fully articulated, which is, in part, due to immature social networking between the actors involved in these renewable energy initiatives, and there appears to be no widely supported strategy for future market development.