Solar panels in an oil-rich country? The strange case of the UAE.
Mirrors in the desert
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. It’s Masdar’s Shams 1 concentrated solar power plant. why would one of the world’s notable oil producers want to invest billions in a competing resource? Dubai copywriter and jouro Hisham Wyne asks around.
Solar vs. fossil fuels
First: the maths. Solar energy works 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.
Talking some numbers
Talk is being translated into measurable goals.The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) has gone on record saying it wants to generate 15% of the emirate’s energy mix from renewable source by 2030 — three times higher a target than its initial 5% commitment.
And thanks to statement projects, solar 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 13MW. The second phase will bring a further 200MW 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.
Making a statement
In 2013, the Shams 1 plant became the biggest tangible manifestation 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 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.
The sun doesn’t always shine
Solar energy is certainly having its moment in the sun. But there are still challenges to overcome. While the UAE isn’t bothered by rain, those fine desert particles play havoc with reflective mirrors. No shiny surfaces, no solar generation. Regular cleaning is a large part of maintenance overheads.
Then there’s the issue of price. America’s Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) estimates that it costs anywhere between 12 to 30 cents (AED0.44 to AED 1.1) to generate every Kilowatt Hour (kWh) from a small to medium-sized solar installation. Contrast that with Dubai’s starting tariff ofAED 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 brighter story
To understand the importance of the UAE’s solar journey, you’d have to understand the importance of the country in the Middle East. It’s always been the region’s poster child — with the cleanest set of rulers, the most diverse residents, the most spick and span roads, and this inimitable way of just kicking on and getting things done. It sets down the benchmark, and others follow. The osmosis is good for everyone.
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. And the UAE is showing that if a petrodollar nation can sink money into viable solar, anyone can.
A more detailed (with more numbers and perspectives) version of this piece is available here.