x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Harvest the wind, and reap the sun

This is a time of milestones for Masdar, with last year's launch of the London Array wind farm and this year's start of production at a solar plant in the UAE.

A completed wind turbine stands at the London Array project. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg
A completed wind turbine stands at the London Array project. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg

This is a time of milestones for Masdar, with last year's launch of the London Array wind farm and this year's start of production at a solar plant in the UAE. By The National staff

Spanning from the western edges of Europe and Africa to the remotest areas of the Seychelles, Masdar's clean energy portfolio spans the globe. It also boasts considerable diversity, including different solar technologies as well as wind power.

The Mubadala-owned clean energy company also has its share of prestige projects, being involved in both the world's largest offshore wind farm and the largest solar project of its kind in the Middle East.

The plethora of projects demonstrate Masdar's willingness to search far and wide for investment opportunities, helping it build the capacity for future growth, and insulating itself against slumps in certain markets.

"We're flexible about opportunities, but they have to be viable from a commercial aspect," said Bader Al Lamki, director at Masdar Clean Energy.

For a company that regularly finds its name associated with landmark projects, 2012 was a notable year. In October, the London Array wind farm sprang to life, as the first of its massive turbines started feeding electricity into the British grid.

The wind farm will eventually count 175 turbines, each measuring an impressive 147m in height, and the 245 square kilometres array is located 22 kilometres from the coastline outside the mouth of the Thames Estuary.

Once all of its turbines are operational sometime early in the year, the project will generate a total of 630 megawatts, sufficient to provide electricity to 470,000 households.

Masdar holds 20 per cent in the London Array. Danish power provider Dong Energy owns 50 per cent of the project, and Germany's utility company E.on holds the remaining stake. The array could be expanded by adding a further 240 megawatts of capacity, and the consortium is currently awaiting government approval for this second phase.

Regardless of this upgrade, the London Array will not remain the largest offshore wind farm for long.

The UK is bound by an European Union directive to derive 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and the government's Renewable Energy Strategy envisages that it will be twice that.

With plenty of windswept coastline, offshore wind generation features highly in plans to meet the country's alternative energy ambitions.

A next phase of development will add a further 33 gigawatts of offshore wind power to the existing 8 gigawatts, and will see the emergence of a much larger type of wind farm in British waters.

The London Array is a good beginning into wind energy for Masdar, and boosts its ability to compete for projects in the UK and elsewhere.

"We've learnt a lot about offshore wind farm project execution," said Bader Al Lamki, director at Masdar Clean Energy.

The company will also have built expertise about solar plants. This spring, the Shams-1 solar concentrated solar power (CSP) array in Al Gharbia, the UAE's western region, will start producing 100 megawatts of power, making it the largest CSP plant in the region, and one of the most sizeable worldwide.

Shams-1 is a joint venture between the Mubadala company, France's Total and Spain's Abengoa. The ownership structure mirrors the private-public-partnerships used by the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (Adwea) for several power projects, and Masdar is a 60 per cent shareholder in the plant, with the Europeans dividing the remaining equity in equal parts.

Construction on the CSP array began in the summer heat of 2010. The 2.5 square kilometre area is now covered in long lines of parabolic troughs, arched mirrors that reflect sunlight onto a tube. The sun heats the liquid in the tube, which in turn heats water, creating steam that powers turbines to generate electricity.

The plant is the first truly large-scale solar project in the country, and an important step in meeting Abu Dhabi's target of generating seven per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Masdar is responsible for creating the utility scale power plants needed for this plan, and Shams-1 will be followed by further solar projects. Next in line is the Noor-1 array, which will deliver another 100 megawatts upon completion. Rather than CSP technology, the plant will consist of photovoltaic (PV) panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity. The project has yet to be launched.

The company is also involved in some smaller projects, all of which have unique characteristics.

A 30-megawatt wind farm on Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi is awaiting approval by the Executive Council. Solar is rightly seen as the renewable with the most promise in the sun-soaked Emirates, but the project will demonstrate that even wind can be made to work in the Gulf.

In Spain, Masdar is a minority partner in Torresol Energy alongside the engineering group Sener. The joint venture is currently constructing its initial 120 megawatts of solar power capacity with three projects in Spain, and aims to become one of the world's largest CSP providers.

Torresol's Gemasolar plant is the first CSP array to bundle sunrays by focusing flat mirrors onto a tower, and retaining heat with a molten salt storage system. The inability to store energy is solar's Achilles heel, as it limits its reliability, and the storage system could prove to be a game changer.

Masdar's international approach will continue to grow, as well. The company is interested in building wind turbines in the Seychelles, and a photovoltaic array in Mauritania. The wind farm would provide six megawatts of power to the island state, saving the country 3.5m litres of diesel used in small scale generators.

In the African state of Mauritania, Masdar will construct a solar array that will provide the country with 10 per cent of its electricity.

At its headquarters in Masdar City, the company is working to improve and adapt solar technologies for use in desert conditions. With Saudi Arabia last year also announcing a big leap into renewables, and most Arab countries starting to integrate renewables into their energy policies, this could reap rewards sooner rather than later.

Alternative energy companies are facing choppy waters in Europe and the US, where ailing economies are denting sources of funding, but a nascent renewables drive in the Middle East and elsewhere could provide compensation.