Can the sun power the Middle East’s future?


- Hisham Wyne

Dubai copywriter and journalist Hisham Wyne gets to grips with potentially the biggest energy source of them all - the sun - and investigates whether solar energy can make a sustainable difference to an oil-thirsty Middle East. A version of this piece appeared in Insight Magazine, a publication owned by the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and brought out in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi School of Management.

Billowing sand gives away to row upon row of concave mirrors glittering in the Abu Dhabi Western Region desert. Hundreds of reflective surfaces light up an area of 2.5 square kilometres. It’s not a mirage but rather Masdar’s Shams 1 concentrated solar power plant. It’s also a powerful statement showing the intent with which the UAE government is approaching renewable energy.There’s a bright future for solar energy in the UAE. Copious amounts of sunshine beating down year-round offer plenty of wattage for solar panels to soak up. Wide open desert spaces afford the ample room that solar power plants require. But most importantly, the political will is there. “The country’s leadership recognizes the economic, social and environmental benefits that come from developing and deploying solar energy. It is critical to diversify the global energy mix if we’re to meet rising electricity demands, address energy security and build a sustainable future,” says Masdar Clean Energy’s Associate Director of Business Development Yousif Al Ali.

A commitment to renewables is being translated into measurable goals. For instance, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) has stated its aim to generate 15 percent of the emirate’s energy mix from renewable source by 2030. The target is three times the initial commitment of 5 percent that DEWA had first posited. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has stated that 2020 will see the emirate generate 7 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. Diversification is a task that will require determination. In 2012, 98 percent of the country’s power plants were natural gas fired, with the remaining 2 percent running on liquid fuels. Every kilowatt generated had a cost in terms of carbon footprint and emissions.

On March 17th 2013, the Shams 1 plant became the biggest tangible manifestation of the UAE’s vision of a sustainable future. It relies on concentrated solar power (CSP), where gigantic mirrors focus large amounts of thermal energy into concise spaces. The energy is used to heat oil that in turn boils water into steam that spins turbines.

Shams 1 was a halo project for what could be achieved with solar energy, and received support from lending institutions across the world. Five European banks, three Japanese banks, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and the Union National Bank stepped up to help finance the project.

 Shams 1 is a major step forward in the process of transforming the capabilities of solar power in the region, and is a significant proof point that large-scale renewable energy can deliver sustainable, affordable and secure electricity,” says Yousif Al Ali.

While Shams 1 alone can’t make much of dent in satisfying the UAE economy’s demand for electricity, it is certainly disrupting the status quo. “The plant has completed two years in operation this year and contributes to the diversification of the UAE’s energy mix. It powers 20,000 UAE homes while reducing the country’s carbon footprint by displacing approximately 175,000 tons of CO2 per year. That’s equivalent to planting 1.5 million trees,” Al Ali says.

Solar energy capacity is rising rapidly in the UAE as a whole. “In 2014, the installed capacity of solar energy in the UAE was a total of 125 megawatts (MW). It is expected to reach 325 MW by 2017 once Phase 2 of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Solar Park [in Dubai] is completed. Thanks to solar, the renewable energy technology has matured, and renewables have graduated into a visibly competitive industry,” Al Ali says.

Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Solar Park is one of the region’s largest renewable energy projects. The first phase kicked off in 2013, generating 13 MW. The second phase will bring a further 200 MW online by 2017. The third phase was announced in 2015 to add 800 MW to the grid in the future. Ultimately, the Park will contribute a total of 3,000 MW through photovoltaic (PV) technology.

Abu Dhabi has said that 2020 will see it generate 7 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

Solar park Shams 1

Shams 1 – the aerial view

Solar energy is certainly having its moment in the sun. But there are still challenges to overcome. A key bottleneck is storage capacity. Electricity can’t be produced at night, or in overcast conditions, which means that storage is essential, and also expensive. And while the UAE might not be too bothered about clouds or rainy days, dust particles can play havoc with reflective surfaces. “A key challenge for solar plants, both PV and CSP in the region is the effect of dust particles, haze and humidity that can reduce efficiency by soiling panels and mirrors,” Al Ali explains. Shams 1, for instance, requires a regular cleaning schedule to operate at peak performance.

Then there’s the issue of price. America’s Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) estimates that it costs anywhere between 12 to 30 cents (AED 0.44 to AED 1.1) to generate every Kilowatt Hour (kWh) from a small to medium-sized solar installation. Contrast that with DEWA’s starting tariff of AED 0.23 for each kWh consumed.

But Al Ali says that high costs are eroding in the face of technological advances. “The installation costs of utility-scale solar PV power plants have declined by more than 80 percent since 2008. Costs have fallen from about USD 7.00 per watt to almost USD 1.1 per watt last year.”

The UAE is serious about solar. But Masdar’s projects aren’t restricted to the country’s boundaries. Together with international partners, it has brought over 250 MW of solar capacity online in the MENA region and Europe. Apart from Shams 1, there is a solar PV plant in Mauritania, projects in Spain and another PV plant in Egypt. Al Ali estimates that Masdar’s current solar project portfolio saves over 250,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually.

Nor is Masdar restricted to solar. It has a portfolio of 1.5 gigawatts of clean energy around the world. “Masdar continues to build some of the world’s most sophisticated, commercially driven clean energy projects around the world. In addition to our solar projects, we also have 620 MW wind projects that are in operation in Europe and 520 MW of wind projects under construction. We will continue to pioneer the adoption of renewable energy in the Middle East and elsewhere long into the future,” Al Ali says.

This impetus towards renewables is having an effect that goes beyond the numbers. The UAE has become a beacon of first world development in the Middle East. Organisations such as Masdar aren’t just bringing in new technology to the country but are also showing what is possible through innovation and commitment. As Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar contemplate moves towards renewable energy, the UAE is busy setting a benchmark for other countries to emulate.

 

With a rising population and the effects of global warming to consider, the world needs a better-balanced mix of energy sources. The UAE’s solar power initiatives offer a much-needed ray of light as the international community confronts a challenging energy future.