Energy-saving house built for RAK ruling family

Austrian engineer catches the wind to solve Ras al Khaimah's power shortages.

Michael Abel stands next to the wind turbine he installed for the energy efficient house of Ras al Khaimah's ruling family.
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RAS AL KHAIMAH // After an hour of intense discussion, a smile breaks through the serious demeanour of the Austrian engineer when he catches sight of the wind turbine.

"This is my toy," he says. "Come see my toy."

Perched beyond the palace gates on a dune overlooking the city of RAK, the wind turbine has a height of 12 metres - small, perhaps, compared with the 65-metre turbine on Sir Bani Yas Island, but not too shabby for a backyard "toy".

Michael Abel is the first builder in the Northern Emirates to experiment with wind power, which he believes could be a part of the solution to the energy shortage in the north of the country. The electrical engineer moved to RAK four years ago and began the unusual hobby of constructing strong, eco-friendly houses after cracks began to appear in his own brand new home.

However, his first set of studios is still not open after four years because they could not get access to electricity. While his other four houses have all been connected to the grid, because they were built on existing properties, the first project remains unconnected, a common problem in the Northern Emirates.

"We're small fry and we're trying to find our own solutions," says Taher Deghayes, a partner with Mr Abel's green building company, Rainbow International.

Mr Abel has played with the possibility of wind power for years. Last year, he imported a wind measuring instrument from Germany and installed it on top of his house, at a height of about eight metres.

After six months of positive results he invested in a modest wind turbine from China, which will help power a house he built for RAK's ruling family. It will be programmed so that it can be controlled through the internet from the family home.

"We're not going to make money on this little thing, but this is exciting because this is where we demonstrated we're really serious about green energy, about finding a real solution," says Mr Deghayes. "We don't want to depend on the state."

The expected production of 4,000kw to 6,000kw of power per month is not enough to entirely power a house. The turbine must be connected to the Federal Electricity and Water Authority (Fewa) grid, but it is another step towards energy conservation and, perhaps, eventual independence from the grid. His houses also require about half as much energy as conventional houses, thanks to small changes like double-glazed windows, automatic light sensors, solar water heaters and underground water tanks.

Mr Abel believes if this wind turbine works on the royal house, he could build another to provide 40 per cent of the energy for his unconnected studio apartments.

"This house needs around 3,000kw per month and the wind tower can produce up to 10kw per hour so it would need 300 hours per month if it runs perfectly," he says.

Mr Abel and a team of eight workers have built five houses that comply with the European Commission's GreenBuilding codes.

He imports the most environmentally efficient materials if they cannot be found locally. This includes shipments of aerated cement, famed for its high insulation rates. The cost of importing this material may seem questionable in an emirate famous for cement production, but it may also provide the impetus for having the green version of the material made locally.

"It's just little steps, little conscious steps," says Mr Deghayes.The houses cost Dh3,000 a square metre compared with average market prices of Dh2,300, but they generate savings on maintenance, warranties and energy bills. Mr Abel's monthly electricity bill has dropped by about a third, to Dh350 a month.

Says Mr Deghayes: "If people start thinking about this in the UAE for their own homes, not even for their investments but for their own well being, it's a good start."