x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Solar power in the UAE soon to be more than a mirage

Across the UAE the authorities are speaking more seriously about their solar plans and are putting in place policies to start harnessing solar potential.

The Solarworld plant in Freiberg, Germany. More than 7.5 gigawatts of solar power plants were installed in Germany last year. Jochen Eckel / Bloomberg News
The Solarworld plant in Freiberg, Germany. More than 7.5 gigawatts of solar power plants were installed in Germany last year. Jochen Eckel / Bloomberg News

Is solar power fake? Is it like a fairy tale we tell our kids but deep down we know it's not real? For years we have been hearing about how the solar era is coming and how it will change everything we do. Yet if we look around us we see lots of sun but no solar power.

We were told that our homes would soon be powered by the sun and that our cars would be able to run on clean energy generated through solar power. Yet solar homes remain a mirage and there are still no neon lights pointing to solar power filling stations on Sheikh Zayed Road or Hamdan Street.

Why is it that despite the vast potential for solar in this country we still do not see any signs of solar energy in our daily lives? Is solar real?

The short answer is, yes, solar power is real. If we look at Europe for example, we see that a significant amount of their electricity comes from solar energy. In Germany, 22 gigawatts of solar power per hour fed into the national grid last year, meeting nearly 50 per cent of the country's midday electricity needs. Germany installed more than 7.5 GW of new solar power plants last year alone, greater than the total power generation capacity of Dubai. So, yes, solar power is real.

So why is it that the UAE, which receives so much more sunlight than Germany, has so little solar power? In fact, even the tiny city-state of Luxembourg, with a population of just 500,000, has more solar energy installed than all of the UAE. This certainly makes you want to scratch your head and ask why.

To find the answer, we need to look at how electricity has traditionally been produced in this country. The UAE has been blessed with vast reserves of natural gas. This source of fuel has made it relatively easy to produce electricity in a dependable and cost-effective manner.

The country has never had to worry about relying on the sun.,Solar panels are able to generate power between about 9am and 3pm per day, about six hours, less if there is a sandstorm. Beyond that the energy production is marginal.

With natural gas, production is guaranteed 24 hours per day. So while the potential of solar power has always been there, natural gas has provided a more secure, stable and inexpensive way of generating electricity for our cities.

In the process, as other regions such as Europe started to tap into their solar potential to cushion their imported fuel costs, the UAE remained happily reliant on its home-grown natural gas. Subsequently, while other countries pushed ahead with their solar initiatives, in large part due to necessity, the UAE remained on the sidelines, looking on with mild amusement.

Today, the market dynamics have changed.

For one, the days of reliable and inexpensive domestic natural gas are long gone.

Dubai imports 99 per cent of its fuel requirements and even Abu Dhabi has started to build terminals to import natural gas for power generation. Across the country, the use of diesel - the most expensive fossil fuel to generate electricity - is also on the rise as demand for power continues to grow.

Moreover, international prices for natural gas have skyrocketed. The current cost of importing natural gas is five times greater than it was just 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, the price of solar photovoltaic systems has dropped by more than 50 per cent in the past five years. As a result, generating electricity from solar power is now cheaper than using diesel. Financially, solar power is now able to compete with fossil fuels.

Technologically, we have seen major improvements in the reliability of solar power. Simple automated cleaning solutions now enable solar power plant owners to guarantee that their energy yield will remain high even during the onset of sandstorms. Storage solutions have also emerged whereby you can generate solar power and store it for up to nine hours and dispatch it when needed most.

Because of these major innovations, we are starting to see a titanic shift in government policy. All across the country the authorities are speaking more seriously about their solar plans and are putting in place firm policies to start harnessing their solar potential.

Already we are starting to see the fruits of this new era.

In March, Abu Dhabi inaugurated the Masdar Shams 1 project, the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world. In October, Dubai will follow suit when the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority inaugurates the first phase of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Solar Park. That solar photovoltaic plant will be the largest of its kind in the Middle East. Best of all, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are just getting started.

Thanks to the targets that have put in place, we will see hundreds of megawatts - not bragawatts - of solar power introduced into the system over the next several years.

The fairy tale of solar power in the UAE may become a reality after all.


Vahid Fotuhi is the president of the Emirates Solar Industry Association