Study reflects Abu Dhabi's solar wish list

The giant photovoltaic array at Nellis Airforce Base, Nevada. Coming soon to an emirate near you?
Pic courtesy of USAF Photographic Archives

The Abu Dhabi government has been telling the world for the past three years that it wants the emirate to become a regional if not world leader in renewable energy. Now this ambitious vision is reflected in a new independently published comprehensive study of the emirate's energy sector, from oil and gas to solar power.

The study's title, "The Oil & Gas Year Abu Dhabi 2010" is somewhat misleading. In its 212 pages, the book also takes a detailed look at Abu Dhabi's electricity and petrochemicals sectors. An tour of its renewable energy initiatives is included.

When it comes to oil and gas, the yearbook provides an informative summation of the strategies and projects that will carry Abu Dhabi's historically most important industry forward. The information is for the most part up-to-date and clearly presented. It is supplemented by transcripts of interviews with senior government officials and industry executives that  occasionally provide flashes of new insight on the progress and long-term feasibility of the government's blueprint for oil and gas development.

But how much of the parallel presentation on renewable power is fact, and how much fancy?

Sadly, it seems that a fair proportion may be wishful thinking.

The new yearbook, just launched in Abu Dhabi by Wildcat Publishing, a firm based in Oxford England, was the result of months of field-work by researchers who had won the trust and co-operation of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and the emirate's Department of Economic Development.

On the renewables side, the picture painted by the researchers' mainly government-connected sources is optimistic:

* Abu Dhabi is on track to becoming "the world's foremost investor per capita in renewable energy development, as well as the new technology of carbon capture and storage, the development of which is currently being led by Abu Dhabi".

* Abu Dhabi "is investing 10 per cent of GDP over the next 10 years in order to help the nascent [renewable energy] industry compete with better-established conventional energy industries".

* "The government's plans are a remarkable and genuine policy change, in line with the objectives laid out in the Economic Vision 2030, as well as the late Sheikh Zayed's concerns for environmental sustainability."

The late Sheikh Zayed is widely venerated by Emirati nationals living in Abu Dhabi, so the last statement is probably no exaggeration. The other two, however, are probably better reflections of what the Government would like to achieve, if left unfettered by harsh economic realities, than of what it will actually accomplish.

Still, Helene Pelosse, the interim director-general of the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), who was also interviewed for the publication, seemed suitably impressed.

"The fact that the UAE is investing 10 per cent of its GDP is a very important signal. I do not know of any [other] country that would do that," she was quoted as saying. "I think Abu Dhabi is taking the lead in the Gulf region when it comes to the promotion of renewable energy. They have a vision for the post-oil era and the future of fuel."

But Ms Pelosse also points out two of the larger problems with Abu Dhabi's renewable energy programme, which hinges on solar power: the emirate's atmosphere is full of sun-obscuring dust, and solar power does not fit its energy sector's hard-won existing expertise.

"Solar energy is going to be the main option in Abu Dhabi, despite the challenge presented by dust," said Ms Pelosse.

"To produce photovoltaic equipment [for solar power] you need to have a strong background in electronics," she added.

Abu Dhabi does aspire to manufacture photovoltaic equipment, but the Government's investments last year in computer chip factories does not constitute a "strong background in electronics". It is a start, but only if Abu Dhabi corporations and young professionals become actively involved in running the factories and related research and development.

The emirate's energy expertise lies elsewhere, in the same fields as those dominated by large international oil firms. Representatives of some of those companies recently told Ms Pelosse they were having difficulty competing in alternative energy sectors such as solar power.

Nevertheless, Rashid bin Fahad, the UAE Minister of Environment and Water, gives the impression he believes the Abu Dhabi Government target of supplying 7 per cent of the emirate's energy needs from renewable energy sources by 2020 is achievable.

"The target of 7 per cent was decided upon after considerable research into the emirate's energy needs and the technology that is available today. This energy will come primarily from solar power, as well as wind-generated power," he said in an interview for the yearbook.

"Currently, all our power stations are running on [natural] gas, the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel," he added.

This may have been true a few years ago, but recent dramatic increases in power demand have led the utilities to use other fuels such as diesel to generate electricity.

Government officials may wish this were not the case, and are reluctant to disclose how much diesel they burn. Judging from data furnished by a variety of external sources, diesel fueling plants designed to burn gas probably contributes close to 30 per cent of the UAE's electricity supply.

So how much weight should we give to other wishful statements?

"Abu Dhabi can offer the energy security that Europe and the rest of the world are looking for. It is establishing itself as a centre for alternative energy development, and we have the capacity to develop these technologies on a larger scale than anywhere else in the world," Mr Fahad continued.

Well, maybe in the perfect world of vision statements, but not yet in Abu Dhabi.