Solar power: Tokai Challenger, winner of the 2009 and 2011 World Solar Challenge race for solar cars, will make its Middle East debut at the World Future Energy Summit Image Credit: Supplied

 The UAE is an early and eager adopter of renewable energy in its many forms, including solar and wind energy. As Abu Dhabi hosts the 5th annual World Future Energy Summit, here is a round-up of initiatives across the emirates that showcase governmental initiative, entrepreneurial leadership and community adoption of renewable energy

A quick word association game, a decade or so ago, would have paired ‘energy’ with ‘oil’. Today, energy has other associations in the UAE. At the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, which begins today and runs until January 19, political, business, finance, academic and industry leaders from across the world join international debate to advance the future of renewable energy.

The country is steadily preparing itself for a future when alternative rather than fossil fuel will be the norm. The attention to renewable energy is also good for the economy as oil consumption at home comes at a cost to exports. Initiatives such as Masdar City mean that a sustainable lifestyle with a minimal carbon footprint is being actualised at various levels. Other efforts include wind and solar power projects, waste management and long term investment in energy from renewable sources, creating a building code that awards energy efficiency and training residents to use energy efficiently. Floating solar farms in Ras Al Khaimah, vertical farming and projects such as Desertec and Irena are moving fast.

This month saw the launch of the Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park with a 1,000 megawatt capacity at a cost of Dh12 billion. The project will be implemented by the Supreme Council of Energy (SCE) in Dubai and be managed and operated by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa). It will achieve production capacity of 10MW by the fourth quarter of 2013 at a cost of Dh120 million. The park intends to reach full capacity by 2030, in line with the Dubai Integrated Energy Strategy 2030 that envisions solar energy to supply one per cent of Dubai’s energy by 2020 and 5 per cent by 2030.

Another recent initiative is Emirates Energy Star Project, a collaboration between Etisalat and Pacific Control Systems. Etisalat clients including building owners, contractors, real estate companies and government entities can use the programme for an initial audit that identifies potential energy conservation measures. The Emirates Energy Star Rating System will provide an Energy Star Award which comprises five successive levels, based on energy efficiency and improvements beginning with a minimum of 10 per cent for one star and ending with five stars for 30 per cent and above.

Going global

"We are concerned with the whole value chain of renewable energy, from its production to its transmission of energy, consumption, conservation and storage," says Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, President of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

Masdar, formed through partnerships with multinational energy and automotive and information technology giants, aims to showcase a city that uses low-carbon technologies from scratch. Its latest advances in clean tech include designs for materials that prevent the accumulation of sand and dust, a project in collaboration with the US Department of Energy. The Shams 1 Project 10MW Solar Power plant provides Masdar with its electricity needs; excess energy is fed back into the main grid of Abu Dhabi.

In a recent development, timber waste from construction activities which used to end up in landfills is now being used as mulch to create landscapes in the city. "In the renewable energy area, we have projects that are involved in the development of new technologies for photovoltaic cells to be more efficient and for using thermal electric technologies in the generation of solar power," says Dr Moavenzadeh.

Technologies that reduce energy demand in buildings, transport, and, most importantly, in a community are also an area of focus.

Just deserts

Desertec, dubbed the largest solar power project ever conceived, provides a significant portion of electricity needs to participating countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Michael Straub, Head of Communications, Desertec Foundation, tells GN Focus that the UAE, with its high solar irradiation and its huge centres of consumption, is optimally placed to produce clean power from deserts and become a technology leader in concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) plants. A key technology in the Desertec concept, these use mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight, or solar thermal energy, onto a small area.

Straub elaborates, "The sun-rich deserts of the world play a special role in the Desertec Concept. Within six hours deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes within a year. CSP uses heat from the sun to drive steam turbines and generate electricity. This heat can be stored in heat tanks meaning that electricity is available on demand — even at night." He says in desert regions near the coast, CSP plants can be combined with seawater desalination so that they not only produce electricity, but also drinking water.

For a growing population, more energy is needed to desalinate water and meet soaring demand. Ras Al Khaimah is developing a series of floating solar islands off its coast in a bid to solve its power issues. On the back of governmental commitment, private companies with products that promise lower energy consumption are taking form. Vertical farming, a system of growing plants in tall buildings using recycled resources and artificial lighting, is the subject of several experiments. Sukhafarms, incorporated in Masdar city, works with vertical farming technology to grow food naturally in urban environments, providing up to 20 times the yield of normal field crops, while using only eight per cent of the water typically required for soil farming.

Beyond the sun

The UAE is also home to International Renewable Energy Association (Irena), which was founded in 2009 to promote widespread and increased adoption and sustainable use of all forms of renewable energy. "We have found a supporting and nurturing environment in the UAE, where our permanent headquarters are located. The UAE government has spared no effort to ensure the success of Irena. As an oil economy, the UAE has demonstrated an extraordinary vision," says an Irena spokesperson.

Green buildings

In Abu Dhabi, a new building codes project, launched last year, aims to unify construction practices across the emirate to create better, safer, greener buildings. Estidama, a rating system created by Urban Planning Council (UPC) is Abu Dhabi’s answer to US’ Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed). It rates the design plans for buildings on factors such as electricity and water consumption, materials and fixtures, divided into five categories.

Masdar has also launched a consultancy to help others build a smaller carbon footprint, by charging to check and list the sustainability quotient of various products. That the UAE’s private and public sectors are taking its carbon credits seriously is evident from the fact that the consultancy has earned Dh1 million revenue since it was launched in March, according to Masdar.

Dubai is set to launch the third and final element of its own green building regulations, making it mandatory by 2014. The regulations align with the ambitious Dubai Strategic Plan 2015 consolidating environmental practices from other codes adapted to the unique requirements of the emirate.