For a 19-hour flight between Madrid and the Moroccan city of Rabat this month, the Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard piloted the Solar Impulse - a single-seat plane powered by nearly 12,000 solar cells distributed on a wing span longer than that of some jumbo jets.
The psychiatrist and former balloonist's journey was part of a 2,500-kilometre round trip that began in Switzerland last month, and he hopes to complete an around-the-world tour in 2014. André Borschberg, the solar plane's other pilot, on Wednesday attempted to complete a shorter, even more perilous solar-powered internal flight from Rabat to the city of Ourzazate.
In the minds of many, solar power is associated with endless rows of photovoltaic (PV) panels or huge mirrors tilted towards the sun. In some countries, it is common to see a meshing of historic architecture with shiny PV panels on rooftops in urban landscapes.
But alternative energies have long attracted creative enthusiasts determined to break the stranglehold of conventional power generation on the supply of electricity. Solar cells can now be found on watches, mobile phones, the machines that dispense parking permits and on rubbish bins in the Emirates.
Air conditioning, which accounts for half of the electricity needs in the Arabian Gulf during the summer months, is an obvious candidate for the solar revolution, and winds of change have started to blow.
In Dubai, the global welding-equipment provider ESAB has installed solar equipment to cool one of its buildings in the Jebel Ali Free Zone. The installation relies on solar thermal collectors covering 160 square metres on the roof. The collectors transmit heat to stored water via copper wiring. This heats the water up to 100°C, activating a device that prompts several chemical reactions and chills water for air conditioning to 10°C.
Neighbouring Abu Dhabi has begun to look at making desalination a more eco-friendly procedure.
Providing potable water is hugely expensive for governments in the region, and desalinating seawater adds to the huge carbon footprint of GCC countries. And no country has a larger per-capita carbon footprint from energy use than the UAE, the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide from desalination plants, according to a 2010 report by the risk consultancy Maplecroft.
Abu Dhabi's Environment Agency has reacted, building 22 solar-powered desalination plants to make brackish groundwater potable. In line with the conservationist theme, the 24,983 litres of water produced daily will be provided to the endangered Arabian oryx.
Solar panels are also in use in a range of small-scale applications along roads and pavements. Across the UAE, a number of companies, institutions and government organisations have adopted solar lighting systems, which charge batteries during the day and emit light at night.
In addition to machines that dispense parking permitsacross the Emirates, street signs and even rubbish bins that line Abu Dhabi's Corniche have solar-power fittings.
Solar power can also be used in land-based transport.
Michael Krämer, a lawyer in Dubai, is working on installing a PV system that charges his electric car. Aware that electric cars are only as green as the electricity used to power them, Mr Krämer is assembling the various components for a charging station, and he hopes to get permission from the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority to feed its excess energy output into the emirate's grid.
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