A solar smart flower opens out its solar ‘petals’ to harness the sun’s heat and convert it into electrical energy. It also contains a self-cleaning system that prevents dust from accumulating on its panels Image Credit: GN Archives

Rising 88 metres high and overlooking the vast expanse of the world’s largest single-site solar park, the towering, angular spire of the multi-award-winning Innovation Centre, located in the south of Dubai, is a building that at once inspires curiosity, igniting an interest to explore and discover more.

Twisting ribbons of glass wrap around the magnificent four-storey building, and as it spirals up, the integrated photovoltaic panels capture and shade the interior from the sun’s heat. The design is rooted in the principles of Islamic geometry, extruded here into a 3D form, and its angular formation has been thoughtfully crafted to create dynamic and faceted interior spaces.

Conceived as an education and global hub for renewable and clean energy innovation, the Innovation Centre which covers an area of 4,355 square metres, sits at the edge of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park – where millions of photovoltaic panels convert the sun’s rays to power around 320,000 homes in Dubai, offsetting 1.6 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year.

Almost 50kms from the heart of Dubai, the scenic drive past the Al 
Qudra desertscape leads to the newly opened tech hub, which has been welcoming visitors since early this year. Several structures including a wind turbine and smart street lighting poles, equipped with photoelectric panels and battery for energy storage, line up the driveway, giving you a hint of what’s to come as you head towards the towering spiral form.

The ‘Wind Tree’, with 54 mini wind turbines, and the organic photovoltaic solar tree, with 12 flexible leaves that store energy during daytime and generate light during night, are some of the other key attractions that catch the eye.

A solar smart flower opens out its solar ‘petals’ to harness the sun’s heat and convert it into electrical energy. We later learn that it also contains a self-cleaning system that prevents dust from accumulating on its solar panels.

Electricity generating pavement

Walking over an electricity generating pavement that uses a hydraulic system to generate energy from footfall, we enter the Visitor’s Centre, where we are welcomed by Mustafa Mohamed Fahim, our guide for the 90-minute tour to explore the latest innovations in clean energy technologies championed by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA).

The UAE’s strategic goal of diversifying its energy sources and reducing natural resource consumption has paved the path for ongoing innovations in alternative solutions to fuel its clean energy ambitions, explains our guide. In Dubai, he adds, this ambitious vision is supported by the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050, which aims to provide 75 per cent of the emirate’s total power capacity from clean energy sources by 2050.

How will the emirate realise this goal? What renewable energy sources will it rely on and what clean tech solutions will it utilise? The Innovation Centre provides answers to all these and more, explains Fahim, adding that to gain an insight into the leaps the emirate has made in the field of sustainable energy, it is essential to begin the journey from where it all began.

The story of power

And so it is to the ‘DEWA Museum’ that we head to – a large hall showcasing the technology that laid the foundations of both electricity generation and water supply in Dubai. We learn that the story of electricity in Dubai began in 1952 with the installation of 2kW generator by prominent shipping agent, Gray Mackenzie.

Shortly thereafter, an UAE citizen installed a generator at his residence and on the request of his neighbours, began to extend power supply to their homes as well. But when the demand rose far beyond his capabilities, the idea of setting up a company to supply power began to take root, and it was in 1959 that the then Ruler of Dubai formally established the Dubai Electricity Company. The same year, another organisation was set up to supply Dubai with water.

Interestingly, at that time, Dubai had only 7,000 dwellings, informs our guide. The following decade marked the first stage of development of the new company and saw a rise in demand from 1.4MW to 42 MW. Two new power stations utilising 21 diesel generators also came up during the same period – ranging in sizes from 360kW to 6.2MW. These were eventually shut down in 1983 when fuel efficient stations began to be constructed.

The early years of DEWA

A gas turbine power station set up in 1978 with a total output of 320 MW was the next big development while in the 1980s, a series of power and desalination plants run on steam and gas were set up to meet the needs of the burgeoning population. In 1992, the independent electricity and water departments were merged to form DEWA and today, barely three decades later, the entity is implementing and managing the largest Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) project in the world with a planned total capacity of 5,000MW by 2030!

The giant strides taken by DEWA towards driving clean energy efforts runs in parallel with ongoing technological innovations that were redefining the world around us. On display at the DEWA Museum therefore is a large System Disc Drive used for storing data from 1979-1994 which, despite its size, could only store up to 515,000 bytes, which is about 0.5 megabytes. Other hardware used previously at DEWA include retro-style phones, an 8-inch floppy disk, the first laptop purchased by the organisation, and a Siemens portable computer that was used from 2001-13 to monitor, manage and get data from substations.

A digital display offers insights into the evolution of electricity as we know it today – from the time early humans began to harness the energy of the sun for their daily needs to the everyday use of electricity that began in the 18th century, and its lasting impact on the planet and all of mankind.

We learn about the late 16th century English physician and researcher William Gilbert, considered the father of electricity, who created the world’s first electroscope and to whom we owe the terms ‘electricity’ and ‘electrical force’, and the concepts of electrical attraction and magnetic poles.

The power of catfish!

About 2750 years Before the Common Era, ancient Egyptians were aware of the electric shocks from catfish, and referred to them as the ‘thunderers of the Nile’, explains our guide. This fascination continued amongst the ancient Greek, Roman and Arab civilisations well into the first century, which led to the practice of encouraging patients suffering from headaches or gout to touch electric fish in the hope that the electric jolt would cure them!

We learn that static electricity, though discovered in around 600 BCE remained relatively unknown until William Gilbert’s experiments almost 2,000 years later.

Of course, no history of electricity would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of Benjamin Franklin, the American polymath who first established the link between lightning and electricity; the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta who invented the first true battery in 1800 CE; German physicist Georg Ohm who discovered the amazingly simple relationship among important quantities in an electric circuit – voltage, current and resistance; and Michael Faraday’s invention of the electric dynamo power generator that set the precedent for electricity generation for centuries to come.

On the second floor at the Knowledge Centre, an interactive exhibit explains the properties of light and solar radiation, and we are taken through the processes by which silica sand is converted to silicon – the dominant material in the photovoltaics and electronics industry.

We learn about solar energy-based technologies and its evolution over the years and discover that for its latest fifth phase, the Mohammed Bin Rashid solar park, uses the latest solar photovoltaic bifacial technologies, which allows solar radiation to reach the front and back of the panels, with single-axis tracking to increase generation. DEWA has also received the lowest global bid of $1.6953 cents per kilowatt hour for the 900MW fifth phase.

An exhibition on key components of photovoltaic solar power and related technologies including Concentrated Solar Power and the Solar Power Tower throws more light on how DEWA is anticipating and shaping the future of energy using innovative disruptive technologies in the production, transmission, and distribution of electricity and water.

The possibilities for further exploration into the future of energy are showcased here through the latest solar cell applications in spacecraft and satellites, a model that explains the working mechanisms of electric vehicles, a wind turbine, and the development of DEWA’s sustainable buildings.

With a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum rating - the highest score in the world for a new government building, the Innovation Centre exemplifies how clean energy can boost competencies in water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, energy efficiency, innovation and design.

The viewing gallery on the fourth floor gives you a bird’s eye view of the millions of photovoltaic panels that covers the 44 sq km solar park and which, when completed, is projected to offset 6.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually, and power the UAE into a greener future.

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