Iceland's president says the UAE could be the first of many countries in the Middle East to develop geothermal resources.
"What has already been proven here is there are geothermal resources in Abu Dhabi and possibly elsewhere in the region that can be used for formidable energy transformation," said Olafur Ragnar Grimsson. "Usually if you find geothermal in a space then it's not restricted to one spot."
Reykjavik Geothermal, an Icelandic energy company that has linked up with Abu Dhabi's clean energy company Masdar, found a geothermal pocket 2.5km under Masdar City in June. If the project is successful, Abu Dhabi would be the first place in the world to employ geothermal power for cooling, rather than more common uses such as electricity or industrial power.
By the second quarter of next year, Masdar plans to finish studying whether the site can yield enough water to make district cooling economically feasible, Frank Wouters, the director of Masdar's power unit, told The Nationalthis month.
The pockets in Abu Dhabi were 95°C, hot enough for district cooling but not for power production. Temperatures need to reach over 100°C to produce electricity. But with 40 per cent of the emirate's electricity consumed by air conditioning, geothermal could help Abu Dhabi to meet its goal to produce 7 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
Masdar awarded the US$1.6 million (Dh5.87m, contract to Reykjavik Geothermal in September last year. Drilling began at two sites in Masdar City in January and ended in June, when drills hit hot water pockets 2.5km below the surface, said Magnus Asbjornsson, the Icelandic company's regional director for the Middle East and Africa.
If the Masdar City geothermal project is successful, water would pass through underground pipelines where heat from the earth's core would create steam.
Although Al Ain, with its hot springs, could also be promising for Reykjavik Geothermal, the company has not yet looked at sites "in detail". said Mr Asbjornsson.
"There are hot springs in Al Ain, and therefore there's some geothermal activity," he said. "We don't know if that's going to be significantly more than is available in Masdar City."
Mr Grimsson, whose country sources 81 per cent of its energy from renewables, said Abu Dhabi's sustainable energy goals were within reach. He recalled the dramatic shift he witnessed in Iceland, which once imported 80 per cent of its energy in the form of oil and coal. Today it sources more than half of its energy from geothermal resources.
Reykjavik Geothermal, which was founded in 2008 to pursue geothermal development outside Iceland, has also held talks with Saudi and Yemen officials.
"Are we looking? Absolutely," said Mr Asbjornsson. "There are geothermal resources in parts of the Arabian Peninsula, in particular in Yemen and western Saudi Arabia."
Geothermal power is also used in Kenya to maintain temperatures in greenhouses, in Iceland to heat homes, and elsewhere to power industrial production such as aluminium smelters.
"For a number of years I was advertising to my friends in Abu Dhabi that there should be drilling in the Masdar City desert," Mr Grimsson said in the capital, where he was deliberating with a jury the winner of a Masdar-sponsored sustainable energy prize.
"In the beginning, they sort of smiled politely. And then I brought the experts in."