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.