Transforming a desert location with rolling, high sand dunes into a site for the world’s largest concentrated solar thermal power plant meant digging and redistributing some 5 million cubic metres of sand.

In volume, the amount is equal to two of Egypt’s Cheops pyramids. But the preparatory work, which started in June 2010, was the least of the challenges ahead for the team working on the Shams One power plant now taking shape near Madinat Zayed, in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region. When completed later this year, it will have a capacity to generate 100 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 20,000 homes.

Large enough to accommodate 285 football fields, the site is now covered with a giant solar field – row upon row of tall metal frames with curved glass mirrors attached to them.

To form the height of each row, four curved mirrors are connected, forming a parabola shape. From there, it is relatively simple physics: the parabola shape means that all the sunlight hitting the mirrors is reflected on to a small glass tube above the mirrors. The sunlight, thus concentrated, heats up the collector tube, and starts a process essential to the production of electricity.

But arranging the mirrors so they do the job is far from simple, said the project manager, Laurent Longuet.

"You need to be accurate and you need to be accurate each time," he said, speaking at a media tour of the new facility on Wednesday.

The plant is 80 per cent complete, and testing of the equipment is expected to start soon. Once it begins running at the end of this year, it will be Abu Dhabi’s largest solar project to date.

Masdar, the capital’s clean energy company, is constructing the solar plant in collaboration with Abengoa Solar, a Spanish infrastructure and environment company, and the French oil company Total. The plant is part of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, which aims reduce the UAE’s dependence on oil.

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