During last winter’s rain, I suffered a power cut. That meant evenings by candlelight, atmospheric at first but tedious after a while, and no internet or tap water (the pump wouldn’t work). Fortunately, the weather was cool and air conditioning unnecessary.
This made me reflect on a more serious scenario – a major interruption to electricity and water supplies across the country. This could come from a natural disaster such as an earthquake or storm, an accident such as an oil spill, sabotage or military action.
The UAE, as a major oil and gas producer, might appear immune from a physical cut-off of supplies, a danger menacing Europe during its confrontation with Russia. But it is a small country, in an often volatile area, and with a hostile climate.
In this desert climate, water is energy.
A failure of water or power supplies for a few hours would interrupt normal business and life, and if continued for just a few days would be a threat to economic security – if the UAE were unable to export its oil freely, for example, or if imported food or gas prices spiked.
The country’s power stations are almost entirely fuelled by gas, of which a quarter is imported from Qatar via the Dolphin pipeline, or as liquefied natural gas by Dubai, most of which, again, is of Qatari origin.
Desalination of sea water is mostly in combination with power generation, using the waste heat from gas combustion. Dubai increased its reservoir capacity substantially last year, but it still represents only about two-and-a-half days’ demand.
So what steps can the UAE take to safeguard its energy and water? Physical and cyber security are already being beefed up, but it is also necessary to increase resilience to unavoidable shocks. Winston Churchill's oft-quoted dictum that "safety and certainty in oil, lie in variety and variety alone" – uttered as the British government was purchasing shares of BP (then Anglo-Persian) to guarantee access to Iranian oil – applies to energy security generally.
The nuclear power programme at Baraka in the Western Region introduces its own safety challenges, but will diversify the power generation mix away from near-total dependence on gas.
Solar power programmes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai are very small today, but could economically reach 10 to 20 per cent of generation capacity. Small-scale solar rooftop schemes could be especially beneficial in boosting energy security – providing power in case of local problems such as breakdowns in transmission lines. Keeping telecoms stations, phones, lifts, fridges, water pumps and air conditioning running, at least during the day, would help mitigate short-term outages.
Recycling “grey” water uses less energy than generating desalinated water. More energy-efficient reverse osmosis desalination plants can run on electricity from any source and would reduce dependence on burning gas.
The urban landscape can also be made more resilient – cityscapes tailored to avoid trapping heat, as at Masdar City, water-efficient irrigation, and multi-modal public transport. Better insulation and shading, and thermal storage in chilled water or ice, ensure buildings stay cool for longer even if the power goes off. Cutting subsidies for electricity, water and fuel promotes rational use and so economic resilience.
On the largest scale, the Emirates need to continue integrating their water, gas and electricity networks, and building rail – and to link these systems with those of GCC partners, particularly Oman. Food and trade security are not just a matter of physical construction, but also international diplomacy.
These steps are all efficient and environmentally positive in themselves. But if it is hard to justify green design and energy efficiency on financial and ecological grounds alone, it is better not to find yourself dealing with an unexpected emergency by candlelight.
Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis
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