Abu Dhabi weighs more cost-effective solar technologies

With the Shams 1 concentrated solar power (CSP) plant marking its third anniversary this week, its operator said that other applications are now proving to be more efficient.

The Shams 1 plant, south of Madinat Zayed, was one of the first concentrated solar power plants in the region. Christopher Pike / The National
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As Abu Dhabi moves ahead with its solar ambitions, it is weighing more cost-effective technologies.

With the Shams 1 concentrated solar power (CSP) plant marking its third anniversary this week, its operator said that other applications are now proving to be more efficient.

The 100 megawatt CSP plant is not cost competitive to other available technologies, such as solar photovoltaic (PV).

“The renewable energy market is, of course, changing and we’re always observing what is the most cost-competitive solution [for] that time and location,” said Abdulaziz Al Obaidli, the acting general manager of Shams Power Company, the operating firm majority controlled by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar.

Shams Power’s original stakeholders included Masdar, Spain’s Abengoa and Total of France. Masdar last year acquired Abengoa’s stake and now holds 80 per cent. Total has the remainder. The plant last year fed 216 gigawatt-hours of power into the national grid – a 3 per cent increase from its target – which powered about 20,000 homes, said Mr Al Obaidli.

CSP was anticipated to take the region by storm when Shams 1 was being developed, with projects also cropping up in Morocco. As a result, Shams was expected to have two additional projects added.

Mr Al Obaidli said the land was originally reserved for three CSP plants, but times have changed and more cost-­competitive options are now available.

Although he declined to give exact figures, Mr Al Obaidli said that the Shams 1 costs more than the average price of CSP. According to Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), production costs for the technology range between 20 and 25 US cents per kilowatt-hour.

But Mr Al Obaidli pointed to the fact that Shams was one of the first CSP projects in the region. “It’s not at today’s electricity prices because when we built Shams, there was only one supplier in the world for mirrors. Now there are at least seven bankable mirror suppliers in the market.”

In comparison, Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, which uses PV technology, was awarded at a tender of 5.84 cents per kilowatt-hour.

While CSP costs much more than PV, it has other added benefits. PV technology must immediately feed into the grid any energy that it generates, whereas CSP can continuously power areas even after the sun disappears thanks to storage capabilities.

Mr Al Obaidli said that the UAE is moving more towards PV because it is more cost-competitive than CSP and because of the electricity needs of the country.

He said that the UAE was looking to help manage its peak electricity times, meaning the middle of the day when the sun is the hottest and air conditioners are running at full power. And for this, PV technology is just the answer, as it can immediately feed more power into the grid.

“There are still countries and developers building CSP plants because they’re looking for more dispatchable base utility solutions and CSP is one of the best renewable energy solutions to provide stable dispatchable solutions,” he said. Dispatchable power refers to being able to request a certain amount of electricity at any time, usually for places that struggle with their power supply or feedstock.

Hadi Tahboub, the vice president of the Middle East Solar Industry Association, said that despite being far more complicated than PV, operators should not rule out CSP. “It complements industrial processes such as powering enhanced oil recovery projects, as seen in Oman.”

Mr Al Obaidli said that Masdar was advising stakeholders that in the UAE, PV is the most cost competitive and effective solution. “If we have the chance for another project, I don’t think it will be CSP – at least in the short term.”