ABU DHABI // When the first major solar power plant was connected to Abu Dhabi's electricity grid on Sunday, the nation tapped into its most freely available natural resource - the sun - and joined an elite but growing club of countries focused on renewable energy.
With a peak output of 10 megawatts - enough to power 3,500 homes - the solar array at the fledgling carbon-neutral Masdar City is not even close to being the biggest to come online in the world. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a northern country with far fewer hours of daylight, let alone sunshine, Germany tops the world league of countries in terms of megawatts produced by solar arrays connected to the grid.
Pursuing an aggressive policy, the country has added more capacity every year for the past five years and in 2008 alone added 1,500 megawatts, reaching a total of 5,400 megawatts. But Masdar's achievement must be seen in context; the new solar array, which cost Dh185 million (US$50.3m), will displace 15,000 tons of carbon - equivalent to removing 3,300 cars from the roads - and will pave the way for a number of larger projects, including arrays that will be capable of powering the entire city when it is up and running in 2015.
At Sunday's unveiling, Sultan al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar, said agreements with Adwea, the Abu Dhabi Distribution Company (ADDC) and the Regulation and Supervision Bureau (RSB) would "streamline future projects". Masdar's development also builds on an assortment of solar-powered projects, that are beginning to dot the rural and urban landscapes of the Emirates. They range from the small - parking metres in Abu Dhabi and speed radars along the highway to Ruwais - to the ambitiously large-scale.
Among these is a prototype in Ras al Khaimah for a fleet of "solar islands" that will float off the coast, serving the energy needs of up to 200,000 homes. In January, the country's first desalination plant to run on solar energy, commissioned by Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, opened about 300km from the capital in Umm al Zamoul. Last year Masdar broke ground on its first photovoltaic-cell production plant in Germany, a $230m (Dh846m) project that will produce the new generation of super-efficient solar technology, known as thin-film PV; a second plant is due to follow in Abu Dhabi next year.
Also last year, the Government pledged to invest $15bn in alternative energy and clean technology, and yesterday the Dubai Department of Energy confirmed plans to build the biggest factory for solar cells in the Middle East. All of these projects feed into Abu Dhabi's energy policy, unveiled in January at the World Future Energy Summit with the target of the country producing seven per cent of its energy by renewable means by 2020.
Nevertheless, the UAE still has a long way to go to catch up with the world leaders. Last month Australia announced plans to build the world's largest solar power plant. At a cost of US$1.05bn (Dh3.8bn) it would be capable of generating three times the energy of the world's current largest, located in California. At Google headquarters in California, 9,212 solar panels cover the rooftops of eight of the company's buildings and two car ports, providing enough electricity to serve 30 per cent of the firm's peak energy needs - the equivalent of 1,000 homes.
In New Orleans, the non-profit organisation Global Green is mounting solar panels on new homes built after Hurricane Katrina, while in downtown Athens solar panels jut from the rooftops of houses and apartment buildings - a common sight in many European countries. Los Angeles has announced plans for 1.3 gigawatts of solar power by 2020, enough to meet 10 per cent of its anticipated needs, while Tokyo is targeting one gigawatt of new solar by next year.
"I think in general a lot of parts of the world are just starting to recognise the true potential, plus a lot of the technology is becoming more cost-effective," said Sami Khoreibi, chief executive of Enviromena Power Systems, the company behind the array that came on stream at Masdar on Sunday. "There are parts of the world that are ahead in solar-installed capacity, but the ambitions we see within Abu Dhabi are among the most exciting globally."
Enviromena itself demonstrates the potential for expansion; it is part of a budding industry in renewable energy, expanding from four employees to 30 in the 18 months since it set up shop in Abu Dhabi. Its goal is to become an international competitor operating from the emirate, and it is not alone in that ambition, Mr Khoreibi says. What is needed now, he says, is for the Emirates to introduce the sort of measures that will encourage industry and individuals to adopt and accelerate the uptake of solar power on a grand scale.
In Germany, for example, which leads the world in solar-generated grid capacity, and last year was fourth for investment in renewable energy, has a special tariff that enables utilities to buy back energy from individual producers - domestic or commercial. "Abu Dhabi has just announced its renewable energy targets; we are looking forward to seeing what mechanisms will come into place to achieve these targets," he said.
For now, the entire region is reliant on the model of large power plants and traditional forms of energy; according to Nader Jandaghi, the Middle East director for the solar manufacturer Suntech, the concept of home and business owners generating some of their own power "is something they haven't experienced in the Middle East". The Masdar initiative, he said, was "absolutely a step in the right direction".
"Starting to change people's understanding is the first step," he said. And there is a global impetus. Barack Obama's stimulus package for the US included a host of enticements, including a tax credit of up to 30 per cent for people who install solar panels to power their homes. The EU was also giving "massive incentives for solar power", said George Berbari, the chief executive of DC Pro Engineering, a cooling and green building consultancy with offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. So far, aside from government projects, such as Masdar, uptake in the Emirates is still reliant on commercial forces.
In addition, he said, the Government was continuing to subsidise the cost of electricity to consumers from traditional power plants, which are powered mainly by gas; this meant that even as costs came down, solar power would struggle to compete. He would also like to see more academic research into renewables carried in the UAE. "We need to create a culture where we invest in the future," he said. "Renewable energy is investing in the future."