UAE can learn lessons from Europeans on renewables
Abu Dhabi is on a mission to get 7 per cent of its power from renewable sources by 2020, and it is starting to show.
The rooftop solar plant at the Masdar Institute is up and running. Shams 1, the region's first full-blown concentrated solar power plant is nearing commercial operation.
The region's first major photovoltaic plant, Noor 1, is currently in the works, and the existing sky-scraping wind turbine on Bani Yas island is slated to be expanded into a wind farm.
But as experiences in Denmark, Germany, and Spain, today's renewable energy pioneers, have shown, running a grid with a large fraction of renewables comes with its own challenges.
Lessons learned in Europe can help inform renewable energy policies in countries such as the UAE as they seek to boost their renewable contribution.
To get an idea of the head-start these European countries have, consider the following: the total generating capacity of modern renewable energies installed on the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa to date is less than the photovoltaic capacity installed in Germany in the past 11 months.
On a sunny day, Germany's total photovoltaic capacity can can match the production of 20 medium-sized nuclear power plants.
But after a decade of drastic expansion of wind and especially solar capacity, the operators of electric grids are calling for slower growth of renewable capacity. Why? For the sake of grid stability.
To avoid instabilities in power supply, and ultimately blackouts, the power that is fed into the grid must at all times balance the power that is consumed. The problem with renewables is their hard-to-predict production profile, which changes with every passing cloud or gust of wind.
These short-term fluctuations, and dwindling output in the afternoon and evening, send ripples through the grid that can throw the system off its fragile balance, resulting in instabilities in power supply - unless they are ironed out by conventional power plants that can adapt production at the turn of a dial.
Despite these challenges, the European experience has shown that significant amounts of modern renewables can be integrated into the power grid. A case in point: in the first half of 2012, a quarter of Germany's electricity came from renewable sources.
There seems little reason why the UAE could not follow suit. Indeed, there are several reasons why it may be even better placed to integrate renewables into its power grids without compromising stability.
First, the weather tends to be more stable and predictable, from day to day and season to season.
Second, peak solar energy production coincides with peak consumption - the UAE uses most power when the sun is strongest - which has a balancing effect on the grid.
And finally, the gas-fired power plants that form the backbone of the UAE's generating capacity are much more flexible than the unwieldy coal-fired and nuclear generators in Europe.
The desire for Arabian Gulf countries to lead the renewable energy transition was a recurring theme at the UAE-Swiss Research Day last month, which was jointly organised with the Emirati Swiss Friendship Forum 2012.
Throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, this programme is gaining traction. Several countries in the region have set renewable energy targets, and their governments have taken steps to honour them.
Morocco stands out as the region's front-runner, with solar and wind development programmes that are unrivalled in scope and expected impact. Once implemented, they will drive the percentage of energy coming from renewables high into the double digits.
The transition towards renewables in the UAE, and other Arab countries, is highly welcome - and recent experience in Europe suggests it could go further even than currently planned.
Ralf Dyllick-Brenzinger is a doctoral student at Ecole Polytecnique Federale de Lausanne and a participant in the innovation programme on energy at EPFL Middle East.
Updated: December 9, 2012 04:00 AM