Some may feel that the current trend in oil prices means we can slow the adoption of renewable energy in the near-term. But nothing is further from the truth.
Our oil and gas resources are finite. Meanwhile, the deadline to deal with the interconnected challenges posed by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is looming larger by the day. Without decisive action on renewables, energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide will more than double by 2050 and increased oil demand will heighten concerns over the security of energy supplies.
The UAE understands the need to balance its energy resources. Abu Dhabi was a first mover in the Middle East, announcing that 7 per cent of its power should be generated from clean energy by 2020. And it sent a strong signal of intent when it established Masdar in 2006, a pioneer in the adoption of renewable energy in the region. Masdar’s 10-megawatt (MW) array at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi was the largest photovoltaic (PV) power plant in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region when it was built in 2009.
Shams 1, which takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘sun’, was the largest Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) facility in the world at the time of its inauguration in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region in 2013, with a capacity of 100MW. Solar Thermal Power uses the sun’s heat to generate electricity, unlike PV, which coverts light into electric current.
Another Masdar project was the world’s first solar-power facility to generate electricity 24 hours a day. The 20MW Gemasolar development near Seville, in which Masdar is a shareholder with the Spanish clean-energy firm Sener, combines a central tower, receiving system and molten salt storage technology, to supply clean energy for up to 15 hours without solar irradiation.
Taking into account Shams 1, Gemasolar and two other solar thermal plants in Spain, Valle 1&2, Masdar has a 5 per cent share of the global CSP market, which today comprises around 4.8-gigawatts* (GW) of installed capacity. Dubai Electricity & Water Authority’s recently-announced plans to build 1-gigawatt (GW) of CSP, as part of its Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, will have far-reaching consequences for the industry.
Increased scale means greater efficiency and ultimately lower costs. The United States’ government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that every 1 per cent improvement in efficiency reduces CSP costs by 7 per cent.
Solar thermal technology could provide as much as 25 per cent of the world’s energy needs by 2050, if developed to its full potential, becoming a competitive source of bulk power in the sunniest climes.
Most experts agree that PV energy backed by battery storage will dominate utility-scale solar power generation considering the steep decline in PV panel prices. But the parallel emergence of CSP has distinct economic benefits and will further diversify clean energy supply.
By generating the most power at the hottest times of the day, CSP can play an important peak-shaving role in meeting electricity demand, while further advances in storage technology point to possible base-load applications. Besides molten salt, researchers at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi are evaluating the potential of sand as an alternative form of energy storage.
CSP also has wider industrial uses, such as the production of steam for Enhanced Oil Recovery as a substitute for the injection of natural gas, and combined cycle power generation.
It is this kind of innovative thinking that has positioned Abu Dhabi at the forefront of the Mena region’s nascent knowledge economy. It also demonstrates how Masdar is leading the field in the development and deployment of clean technologies that address the challenges widely associated with renewable energy: scale, cost efficiency and intermittency.
CSP and the solar industry in general also offer another precious commodity: Jobs. The NREL estimates that investing in 100MW of CSP generates 4,000 job-years and $628 million in economic output — compared with 330 job-years and $47 million in economic output for an identical investment in natural gas.
Globally, the solar energy hitting Earth each year exceeds the total energy consumed by humanity by more than 20,000 times. Solar, therefore, has the greatest potential to replace fossil fuels as a primary power source. With solar energy, sunshine-rich Gulf countries can displace their domestic oil-and-gas consumption, diverting supply to other parts of the world that need it and have few other alternatives. Both concentrated solar power and PV technology have a role to play in bringing about this game-changing shift — even when the sun doesn’t shine and at night.
Bader Al Lamki is executive director for Clean Energy, Masdar.