Mirrors in the desert reflect future energy

The first tribes to live in what is now San Bernardino in California called it "The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God".

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PARIS // The first tribes to live in what is now San Bernardino in California called it "The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God".

Today its desert is home to the construction site of what developers hope will be the world's biggest solar power plant - a field of more than 165,000 mirrors to concentrate the sun's energy. The mirrors will reflect sunlight on to three towers containing a liquid that, when heated, makes the steam to drive electricity turbines.

The companies behind the project - the US solar company BrightSource and its investor Alstom, a French power conglomerate - hope the solar tower, scheduled to be completed in 2013, will serve as proof that the tower technology works in the desert and can be brought to the Middle East.

Among their targets is Abu Dhabi, with which "preliminary discussions" have taken place for a plant in the range of 130 megawatts, said Robert Gleitz, the vice president of marketing for Alstom Power.

"What they are looking for is to have a demonstrated technology," Mr Gleitz said at Alstom's Paris headquarters. "It's obviously not going to cover the whole country; 130 for Abu Dhabi is obviously a small project, but it's a starting point."

The emirate aims to draw 7 per cent of its power from renewables by 2020, part of the drive behind a 100-megawatt solar thermal plant under construction and plans for a 100-megawatt array of solar panels to convert sunlight directly into electricity. Industry executives estimate that to reach the 2020 target, Abu Dhabi needs to build a 100-megawatt renewable-energy plant every year.

Masdar, the clean-energy company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government and the developer of the two solar plants, has not announced plans for a large-scale solar tower in the emirate. But it is involved in solar tower technology.

Researchers at the Masdar Institute, the company's university, are testing a small tower that directs sunlight collected at the top to the bottom, where the liquid is heated. That means the liquid does not have to travel up and down within the tower, minimising energy loss, the researchers hope.

In Spain, a Masdar joint venture has built a solar tower containing molten salt, which can store heat so that it can produce energy through the night.