x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Atomic answer to electricity supply question

Need to broaden mix of energy generation as chronic shortages in Northern Emirates and Sharjah show conservation is not enough

With yesterday's awarding by Abu Dhabi of the master contract to build nuclear power stations, the UAE has -taken a giant step towards addressing its most pressing developmental issue: finding a sustainable way to power continued economic -expansion. Until now, the fuel of choice for power generation has been natural gas, a cleaner-burning fuel than oil or coal. The UAE has the world's seventh-largest proved gas reserves. Even so, converting reserves into power has fallen short of requirements in recent years as chronic shortages in the Northern Emirates and last summer's blackouts in Sharjah have clearly shown. This seemingly unlikely problem for one of the world's largest energy producers is the price of economic success. The nation has simply outgrown its ability to satisfy its expanding power requirements from a single fuel source and urgently needs to broaden its energy mix if it is to continue developing energy-intensive basic industries and large-scale manufacturing. "We see that one resource is not enough. The UAE sees the value to widening its energy basket," Ahmed al Sayegh, a director of the Abu Dhabi Government investment company Mubadala Development told an energy forum in the capital this year. While nuclear power is not the only new energy option under development, it is key to providing the Emirates with energy security in the medium term. The Government last year published a white paper, or policy document, evaluating the potential development of a civilian nuclear power programme. One of its tasks was to evaluate and compare the energy alternatives available to a country that is expected to have only enough gas to supply 50 per cent to 60 per cent of its power needs in 2020. "While the burning of liquids [crude oil and/or diesel] was found to be logistically viable, evaluation of this option revealed that a heavy future reliance on liquids would entail extremely high economic costs, as well as a significant degradation in the environmental performance of the UAE's electricity sector," the paper said. Coal-fired power generation was also rejected because it would have "an even more severe detrimental effect on environmental performance" and because the UAE has no coal reserves, raising supply issues. Alternative energies such as solar and wind power would be viable in the UAE but, at best, could supply as much as seven per cent of peak electricity demand by 2020, the -paper said. "Stacked against the above options, nuclear power generation emerged as a proven, environmentally promising and commercially competitive option," the Government concluded. "A materially sized nuclear energy programme could contribute substantially and competitively to the UAE's basic power needs for decades, retain the continued support of international investment partners, yield sufficient revenues to support a competent and fully professionalised regulatory and safety authority and ensure the continual improvement of safety practices and security in accordance with best global standards." Nuclear's chief advantage is that it can pump out large amounts of power from a tiny uranium fuel supply, night and day, all year round. Another big advantage is that it involves almost no carbon emissions after the plant has been built and contributes minimally to global warming. This is important to the UAE, which holds the permanent secretariat of the International Renewable Energy Agency and has made public commitments to reduce its large per capita carbon footprint. It could also prove to be commercially beneficial if a global tax on carbon is agreed to limit climate change. The downsides to nuclear energy are the high cost of building technically advanced power plants and ensuring their safe operation. The 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine and the partial core meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor in the US in 1979 are perhaps the best-known nuclear accidents. tcarlisle@thenational.ae