Beyond Durban: UAE thinks big on clean energy

With a new global accord in place and investments gathering pace, the world is waking up to clean energy. Against this backdrop the UAE is one of a raft of countries ramping up its cleantech activities

Twenty thousand delegates have come back from December’s UN climate change talks in Durban unsure what the decisions taken may mean in practice, but the clean energy economy strides on regardless.

New Bloomberg figures show that global investments in solar power more than doubled last year even as prices of photovoltaic panels tumbled, a record US$260bn was invested worldwide in all renewables, and the US regained the clean energy lead from China for the first time in five years.

The message that renewable energy makes economic as well as ecological sense, even in a recession, can now be seen from the smallest islands to the largest countries. Spurred by climate change, fuel prices and the water crisis, an energy revolution is taking place.

The UAE is a case in point. It may have nearly 10 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and 3.3 per cent of its gas but it plans to dramatically lessen reliance on fossil fuels and increase renewable energy to 7 per cent of its energy used in the next eight years.

Individual emirates have also set their own targets: in the spirit of the Kyoto protocol, Dubai has pledged to reduce its CO2 emissions by 30 per cent within 18 years using its own solar power and nuclear electricity imported from neighbouring Abu Dhabi. To do this, it will build a huge solar power station, a US$3.2bn, 1,000MW plant.

One example of what future urban developments may look like can be seen at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, the extraordinary Norman Foster designed, US$22bn city in the sand. What will be the world’s first truly carbon-neutral city for 50,000 people belies the desert heat using a mix of high technology and ancient Arab building methods to massively reduce temperatures, water and energy use.

Masdar has been built for the Arabian heat, but the UAE plan is to become a world leader in clean energy and a showcase for new technologies. This means investing some of its oil wealth in clean energy around the world. Work has started on the Torresol project in Spain, the world’s first commercial-scale concentrated solar plant, which should produce enough electricity for a town. Equally, Dubai has invested in wind farms in Britain, German photovoltaics and a massive next-generation “thin film” solar manufacturing plant to provide the UAE with homegrown solar power.