Embracing fuels of the future

A number of alternative energy projects in the UAE will reach significant milestones this year

A model of the waste-to-energy plant being developed in Sharjah by a joint venture between Bee'ah and clean energy company Masdar. Image courtesy of Masdar
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This year, the UAE will reach an important milestone. In May, it will be 60 years since the first well at Murban Bab Oil Field in Abu Dhabi was completed. Exports began on December 14, 1963, from Jebel Dhanna port; the union was proclaimed seven years later — and the rest, as they say, is history. Thanks to the country’s leadership, the oil revenue was used wisely, helping build the vibrant modern country we know and love today.

Just as important was the recognition that oil is not an infinite resource, and would eventually be replaced by other energy sources, hence the country’s efforts to diversify the economy. Oil industries accounted for 79 per cent of UAE GDP in 1980; by 2017 that figure had shrunk to 29.5 per cent.

And reliance on petrochemicals will continue to diminish, as our government tackles the dangers posed by climate change. The UAE Energy Strategy aims to increase the contribution of clean energy to 50 per cent by 2050 and reduce the carbon footprint of power generation by 70 per cent.

As we enter a new decade, we are seeing the UAE progressing quickly on alternative energy developments to meet its ambitious goals.

Solar energy has long been viewed as a game changer for the UAE, but only in the past few years have we seen the technology evolve and costs decrease to a level where its fullest potential can be realised. Just six months ago, the world’s largest single-site photovoltaic solar plant, the 1.17 gigawatt Sweihan independent power project (IPP) was commissioned in Abu Dhabi. Dubai also reached its funding target for its $4.3bn concentrated solar power (CSP) project at Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park.

Another project scheduled this year is Dubai’s Hassyan Clean Coal Project, with the emirate seeking to generate 12 per cent of its energy from this source once fully complete. Coal might not seem like a fuel of the future, but techniques such as carbon capture and attempts to lower emissions have vastly improved, making it more environmentally-friendly.

The UAE has also embarked on the construction of the region’s first solar hydrogen electrolysis plant in Dubai. In collaboration with Dubai Expo 2020, Siemens and the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, the project explores the possibility of developing a hydrogen economy in the UAE. The integrated megawatt-scale plant is being trialled to produce green hydrogen using renewable energy, storing the gas, and deploying it for re-electrification, transportation and other industrial uses.

At Bee’ah, we have established the Emirates Waste to Energy Company (EWTE) with Masdar. Our first project is the country's first waste-to-energy plant, which will open in Sharjah next year. This facility will process more than 300,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste each year, to produce around 30MW of energy, which will power up to 28,000 homes and displace almost 450,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year. It will also help Sharjah achieve its target of becoming a zero-waste city by 2021.

Looking ahead, we recognise that the Gulf region faces a formidable task in its transition to alternative energy. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency's (Irena) 'Renewable energy: Market analysis GCC 2019', the Gulf region will install 7GW of new power generation capacity from renewable sources by the early 2020s. To give context, the region has 146GW of installed power capacity, of which renewable energy currently counts for less than one per cent.

However, the report also notes that the GCC can create 220,500 jobs, save 354 million barrels of oil and achieve $46bn-$76bn (Dh169bn-Dh279bn) in discounted fuel savings, along with reducing water withdrawals in the power sector by 11.5 trillion litres and saving 136 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions if the region successfully meets its sustainable energy targets. And while the UAE plans to invest $163.3bn by 2050 to meet its growing energy demand, it is projected to save up to $190.6bn in energy savings, according to official projections.

These figures show that there is a great economic prize, as well as an obvious environmental one, for the UAE to become a world leader in alternative energy sources.

Khaled Al Huraimel is group chief executive of environmental management company Bee'ah