Masdar turns up heat in race to harness solar power for cooling

Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Government¿s clean energy company, has become the first in the region to harness the sun¿s heat to directly power an air conditioner.

Energy company activates pilot plant at carbon-neutral city Chris Stanton Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Government's clean energy company, has become the first in the region to harness the sun's heat to directly power an air conditioner, heralding the advance of a costly technology that could one day play a key role in cooling cities across the Middle East. The activation of a pilot plant at Masdar City, the carbon-neutral development, was announced yesterday shortly after the emirate's electricity utility said it planned to complete its own solar cooling system at an office building in the capital by December.

Both systems would turn the region's oppressive summer heat to their advantage by concentrating the sun's rays to chill water through a thermodynamic process. The technology is already in use at about 500 sites across the world, but remains prohibitively expensive in most markets, said Uli Jakob, the general manager of the solar cooling company Solem Consulting. It will take between five and 10 years to bring down the cost of installing the technology in residential units to competitive levels, he said. "If you're talking about commercial applications like office buildings … then we can get a return on investment of seven to 10 to 12 years," he said.

"With an increase in the cooling demand that you can see all over the world in the last five to 10 years, which has more or less doubled, the electricity grids in summertime have become really limited, leading to blackouts." Masdar did not disclose the cost of its system yesterday, but said it had the equivalent of 175 kilowatts of cooling capacity and was being used to cool the company's temporary offices at the site. Based on Mr Jakob's estimates that each kilowatt of solar cooling capacity today costs between €2,000 (Dh9,910) and €3,000, Masdar's system is likely to cost between €350,000 and €525,000.

A separate system is being installed at a five-storey office building belonging to the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority, said Peter Le Lievre, the chief executive of Chromasun, a California company that is supplying the technology. He declined to specify the equipment's cost, but said the rooftop panels would be sufficient to meet between a third and half of the building's cooling load on the hottest days of summer.

A second stage of the project would include enough capacity to cool the whole building, he said. "We can generate probably twice as much cooling energy than if we just put solar power panels on the roof," he said.

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