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Thousands of mirrors to capture the sun

The final stages of construction on Abu Dhabi's solar power plant are set to begin within days with the first "green electrons" expected to be produced by the summer of 2012.

About a quarter of a million mirrors that will harness sunlight at Abu Dhabi's Shams 1 solar project have arrived in the emirate, and installation is to start within the next two weeks.

The 100-megawatt concentrating solar power (CSP) plant being built near Madinat Zayed in the western desert will pump its first "green electrons" into the Abu Dhabi power grid in the summer of next year, said Arnaud Chaperon, the vice president of electricity and renewable energies of the French energy group Total, a partner in the project.

"We are on schedule. The work is going well," he said on the sidelines of the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Government's clean-energy company, signed a deal last year with Total and the Spanish company Abengoa Solar for the US$600 million (Dh2.2 billion) development, which will be the GCC's largest solar plant. Total is providing expertise in project management as well as in optimising the performance of the power plant, which will supplement its intake of sunlight with a small volume of gas.

The gas will allow the temperature of the steam generated in the plant to be boosted to 500C from the 380C currently possible with solar input alone. The higher temperature allows the steam to drive turbines more efficiently, Mr Chaperon said.

The gas can also be used to maintain the plant's power output during cloudy periods, he added.

When completed, the Shams 1 plant will cover 250 hectares of land - the equivalent of 285 football fields - with reflective parabolic troughs surrounding a central power generation unit containing boilers and turbines. Under Abengoa's design, the mirrors in the ground-mounted sun-tracking troughs will focus sunlight on a pipe containing a special oil that can be heated to high temperatures without breaking down. About 170km of pipe will be needed to connect all the mirrors and carry heat to the boilers.

The solar plant will potentially provide enough electricity to supply the power needs of 20,000 airconditioned homes.

Total chose solar power as one of two core areas of renewable-energy technology to include in the company's four-year-old gas, power and energy division. That is because the firm, best known as one of Europe's biggest petroleum companies, has chemicals affiliates with expertise in the materials used to make photovoltaic (PV) cells - another form of solar-power technology distinct from CSP.

PV converts sunlight directly into electricity, using semiconductors similar to those found in computers. Total plans to bid on Masdar's next utility-scale solar project, which will be a PV array likely to be located near Al Ain, Mr Chaperon said.

He has high hopes of winning the contract because of Total's historically strong relationship with Abu Dhabi, where the company has been pumping oil for more than seven decades from offshore and onshore concessions. More recently, it has teamed up with Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government and which also directly owns Masdar, as a member of the Dolphin Energy gas production and pipeline consortium, which distributes Qatari gas to customers in the UAE and Oman.

"We've been here for 75 years and hope to be here for twice as long. It's in our DNA to be partners in this region," Mr Chaperon said.

Total's other renewable-energy initiative is in biofuel - an area in which most big oil companies are interested because of the natural fit with their oil processing and petroleum products distribution and marketing networks.

Last year, Total acquired a 22 per cent stake in the US biotechnology firm Amyris, which is due to open its first industrial biofuel plant next year in Brazil. The two companies have also formed a joint venture to develop genetically modified yeast strains capable of turning plant sugars into biofuels and "green" chemicals.

"It's something we think the industry can achieve in the coming decade," Mr Chaperon told the conference. "We wish to transform Total from an oil and gas company into an energy company."

Total's business model for renewable energy development is to form partnerships with emerging technology firms in which it takes a minority equity stake. A typical deal would include acquiring 20 to 25 per cent of the junior company's shares and the rights to one seat on its board of directors, Mr Chaperon said. Beyond solar power in the UAE and sugar cane-based biofuel production in Brazil, which Total hopes will be the basis of its new renewable-energy business, Mr Chaperon envisions future opportunities for solar energy development in other GCC states and, eventually, biofuel ventures in Africa. The company is already the biggest foreign producer of African oil.

Mr Chaperon considers Total's entry into renewables as timely, as it has coincided with the early stages of the sector's rebound from a severe downturn.

tcarlisle@thenational.ae

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