You most likely know it for the large quantities of oil and gas it has sold on the global market for over three decades. You may know it for Masdar City, billed as the world’s first carbon-neutral city. You may also know it gets a lot of sun.
What you may not know is that the UAE will use that insolation to power the region’s largest solar plant, which came online Sunday.
Dr Adnan Amin, Secretary General of the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency understands the skepticism:
The question was often asked, why would a renewable energy agency be headquartered in an oil-producing country, which was well endowed [with fossil resources] as the UAE…. Behind us, you have the proof.
The Shams One plant is a concentrated solar, or solar thermal power plant with a capacity of 100 MW. It tracks the sunlight using parabolic curved mirrors which then focus the sun’s rays into 120 kilometers of tubes filled with liquid, which when heated is used to create steam that turns a turbine. The electricity generated is expected to power 20,000 homes in the U.A.E. and offset 175,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Though silicon-based photovoltaic solar products have seen their prices fall recently, concentrated solar power has the important potential benefit of addressing the problem of intermittency, to an extent. The heated liquid can be stored and used when the sun does not shine. Right now Shams One does not have such storage capability — it will rely on natural gas at night. Fortunately, peak electricity demand is during the hottest parts of the day, which is when solar power is most abundant. The plant will also use a dry cooling system, significantly reducing water consumption.
The new solar plant in the UAE is a first step in a larger effort to diversify the Middle East’s energy portfolio. Saudi Arabia is raising $100 billion to generate 41,000 megawatts from solar energy by 2032, or one third of its demand. Until these recent renewable energy investments, many nations in the region were powered entirely by fossil fuels — most without nuclear or hydropower to diversify. Recently, economic powers have begun to see renewable energy investments as growth opportunities:
Energy and finance leaders discussed ways to encourage greater private sector investment in renewable energy and low-carbon, climate-friendly projects as a tactic to mitigate climate change and diversify the global energy mix.
Specifically, leaders focused on the growing opportunities for sovereign wealth funds, development banks and pension funds to view the new energy industry as a growth opportunity, especially in developing economies.
The UAE’s special envoy for energy and climate change, Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, put it succinctly:
Increased collaboration and institutional investment are critical in diversifying the global energy mix and addressing climate change…. The realities of climate change should be viewed as an economic opportunity.
Clearly, these investments are not simply benevolent, charitable steps to reduce carbon pollution. These nations and companies realize all too well that oil and gas they burn to fuel their own economies is oil and gas not being profitably exported to larger developed and developing countries. The UAE has become a net importer of natural gas because of increased domestic fuel consumption. They would much prefer to export their 228 billion cubic feet of proven gas reserves than consume it. The latest biannual report from WWF that tracks global ecological footprints found that the average UAE citizen requires 8.4 global hectares to sustain their lifestyles, the third-most per capita footprint in the world. This sorry figure is actually an improvement, as the UAE led this category for all previous iterations of the report.
It becomes clear that solar power is a no-brainer for the UAE and the Middle East in general.
What else does the region need to further diversify its energy portfolio? Outgoing UAE Education Minister Sheik Nahayan bin Mubarak al-Nahayan told the New York Times:
We need more research from universities — especially in fields that are important to us, like energy, alternative energy, resource management, water management. These are of concern to us. We have set up the National Research Foundation, but more needs to be done.
The silver lining is that there is so much sunlight in the Middle East that the solar power potential has the solar industry drooling for expansion in the region.