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Proving that solar power can help meet the UAE's energy needs

In order to reach Abu Dhabi's goal of getting 7 per cent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020, we first need to understand how much renewable energy is available.

In order to reach Abu Dhabi's goal of getting 7 per cent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020, we first need to understand how much renewable energy is available - and how best to harvest it.

To provide a part of that critical information, researchers at Masdar Institute are working to assess the potential of solar energy as an essential future source in the UAE.

We are conducting detailed quantitative analysis of the solar- energy resource, electricity production and consumption trends, and the status of solar-energy projects and initiatives in the UAE.

We have already provided some unique insights. One of the key findings has been that the UAE's current energy needs could be met by covering a mere 1.9 per cent of the country in thin-film and silicon modules.

The UAE lies in what is known as the "sun-belt", the middle region of the globe that is most exposed to the sun. It should be no surprise then that Abu Dhabi city, Al Ain and Sharjah were found to have among the highest yearly solar- energy input out of 207 regions in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The country gets between 10 and 15 hours of sunshine almost every day - enough for existing energy-storage technologies to operate round the clock.

There is very little seasonal variation in the amount of solar power available, so solar plants in the UAE will be able to operate near full capacity year-round. And the sun is strong here, strong enough for solar-concentrating technologies such as concentrated PV or concentrated solar thermal to operate efficiently.

Our project also looked at how the UAE's existing solar projects will contribute to the overall goals of sustainable energy.

Currently the UAE has 20 megawatts of solar energy capacity. By the end of next year that is expected to grow to 140MW.

Going by announced plans for further solar-energy developments, the report forecasts that at least 800MW will come on stream by 2020, and another 900MW before 2030.

In terms of existing installations, the research counted 36 solar installations that generate 10MW of electricity and hot water, in addition to the first grid-connected 10MW solar-power plant in Masdar City. Together they have been combined into the UAE's first solar installations map.

Among the installations, four are used for heating water in four iconic buildings: Burj Khalifa, Palm Jumeirah, Aloft Hotel and Masdar Institute. Two are deployed in remote islands to avoid transporting fuel to them.

One cools buildings in Masdar City, and another is being used to desalinate water. Some, in street lighting, have been in use for decades, as far back as the early 1980s.

With these findings, we were able to also provide some suggestions for further measures that could improve the uptake, economic viability and use of solar energy technologies.

We found some mathematical methods for accurately estimating how much solar radiation is received on the ground.

This is very important for predicting how much power a solar installation will generate, and therefore whether it will be financially viable.

We also found that the general belief that solar modules perform less well at high temperatures and humidity is not necessarily true.Indeed, some solar panel technologies, such as organic solar modules, work best under such conditions.

We also found that solar energy could be a much better source of power for desalinating water thannatural gas, both financially and environmentally.

This could make a huge difference, given that the UAE is the world's second biggest desalinator, and that its production of desalinated water is rising by 6 per cent a year.

We are confident that between them, these findings will help the UAE and Abu Dhabi to reach its goals of sustainability and renewable energy. The quantitative information this report provides will surely help ensure solar-technology development in the UAE continues, effectively and efficiently.

Alaeddine Mokri is a research assistant at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

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