The global solar industry is flocking to the UAE as the country's first solar plant starts generating enough power to supply 20,000 homes.
The largest solar array in the Middle East will be inaugurated today in a remote corner of Abu Dhabi as the UAE takes a major step towards a renewable energy future.
It caps a year that has seen membership of the industry's solar trade body double on a rising tide of investment in renewables.
The Shams-1 concentrated solar plant (CSP) now feeds 100 megawatts of green electricity into the grid, generated by its huge curved mirrors that cover 2.5 square kilometres of desert near the town of Madinat Zayed.
It is the first in a series of renewable energy projects that will produce 7 per cent of Abu Dhabi's electricity by 2020, according to government plans.
"The project represents the first major step in diversifying the UAE's energy supply - extending the life of the UAE's hydrocarbon resources and supporting our long-term energy and economic security," said Sultan Al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar, the Mubadala unit that holds a controlling stake in Shams-1.
The plant is a joint venture between Masdar, the French oil company Total and the Spanish solar player Abengoa. It will produce enough power to supply 20,000 homes in the emirate and will be followed by Noor-1, a 100MW photovoltaic plant.
Noor is currently in the so-called value engineering stage, where Masdar is negotiating costs with bidders. Once an agreement has been struck, it will be submitted to the Executive Council for approval.
Photovoltaic plants are cheaper and quicker to construct, whereas CSP plants deliver a more stable and sustained flow of electricity. The Executive Council is also deciding on a 30MW Masdar wind farm project in Sir Bani Yas.
Shams heralds a solar push across the Middle East.
Dubai has followed Abu Dhabi's lead with plans to produce 1,000MW in the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park by 2030. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is gearing up for a massive solar programme that aims for 41 gigawatts of generation capacity by 2032. The tenders for the first few hundred megawatts of the programme are imminent, according to industry sources.
Morocco has awarded the first contracts for the 500MW Ouarzazate complex, as Rabat targets 6,000MW of renewable energy by 2020. Jordan and Oman also have solar ambitions.
The growth of solar power in the region will benefit the UAE, said Vahid Fotuhi, the president of the Emirates Solar Industry Association (Esia).
"The UAE is becoming a bit of a hub for the solar industry in the Gulf," he said, pointing out that Esia membership had doubled to 100 companies in the last year.
Economies will over time also benefit from increasing local content of solar arrays. Oil and gas producing countries will be able to export a greater share of their production, as fewer fossil fuels are burned in conventional power plants, adds Mr Fotuhi.
Masdar is an active investor abroad. The company now has stakes in about 9 per cent of global CSP solar power generation, according to figures by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, as Masdar is a minority partner in the TerraSol Energy joint venture that generates 120MW in Spain.
The Mubadala unit has also invested in the London Array, the world's largest offshore windfarm, and has renewable energy projects in Mauritania and the Seychelles.
Its partnership with Total, which holds a 20 per cent stake in Shams, could be a recurrent feature in Masdar's growth plans.
"We have developed trust between the two organisations," Jean-Marc Otero del Val, vice president at Total's new energy division, told The National in January. "Both Masdar and Total have agreed to deepen their relationship and explore other avenues of cooperation in the UAE and outside the UAE."