Harnessing the Middle Eastern sun

Georgina Lavers
Georgina Lavers

Can the power of the sun in the United Arab Emirates be used for a cleaner future?

Solar power – the conversion of sunlight into electricity – has been gaining ground on more traditional sources of energy in recent years. Unlike fossil fuel based technologies, solar power does not lead to any harmful emissions during operation: an admirable green credential that is making countries like Dubai sit up and take note.

The city's infrastructure has done a more-than admirable job of containing the sun – but now the race is on to harness solar energy for the possibility of an eco-friendly future.

Anita Mathews, the Director of Informa Energy Group – the organisers of the Middle East Electricity and Solar Middle East Exhibition and Conference – affirms that solar power generation is a very efficient and cost-effective way to generate power during the day.

“This means that solar energy can supply electricity during peak hours and the electricity loads associated with that – essentially heat, cooling and ventilation. Solar energy is thus called a peak cutting source of energy.”

However, Mathews maintains that even though Dubai has roughly 3700 hours of sun a year, it isn’t possible for 100% of the emirate’s electricity to come from sunlight.

A solar plant in Spain
Informa are seeing major developments in energy storage: which will allow for solar energy to be stored for use at night

“Solar energy is variable during the day and across the year and it doesn’t produce power at night so right now, solar energy cannot replace base load capacity.”

She adds the caveat that Informa are seeing major developments in energy storage: which will allow for solar energy to be stored for use at night or during the day to generate base load capacity.

In the next decade or so, Dubai is aiming to reduce gas use to 71 percent, with the remaining percentages split between nuclear energy (12%), clean coal (12%) and solar power (5%). Though still a small number, the emirate is increasing its capacity for solar power. Mathews points to the installation of a large 13MW system by First Solar, and there has been another tender, for another 100MW, to be completed in the next 2-3 years.

“These are part of a larger Al-Maktoum solar park, which will regroup multiple utility-scale projects featuring different solar technologies for a total power generation capacity of 1GW by 2030,” says Mathews.

Solar energy can supply electricity during peak hours and the electricity loads associated with that – essentially heat, cooling and ventilation

Anita Mathews, Director of Informa Energy Group

Dubai is keen on increasing utility-scale power generation, in order to decrease its dependency on fossil fuel imports. “The new 100MW tender is for a public-private partnership, different from the previous 13MW system, which will lead to its own set of challenges and lessons learned," says Mathews. "As the government authorities become more comfortable and familiar with solar energy development and it’s integration into the grid, then we may see great liberalisation in the process for privately funded development.”

In the future, says Mathews, the deployment of a renewable energy generation mix (wind, solar, tidal, etc) that meets a country’s strength – supported by a smart grid and energy storage infrastructure – may be able to handle 100% of the electricity demand.