How a remote patch of Abu Dhabi desert became a world leading solar plant

The Noor facility is the largest of its kind in the world - but even larger UAE solar plants are on the way

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Less than 30 months ago, it was an unremarkable patch of Abu Dhabi desert. Today, enough power is produced on the eight square kilometre site to power 90,000 homes.

Near the small town of Sweihan, a stone’s throw from the Dubai border, the Noor solar power plant is officially up and running, with more than 3.2 million solar panels soaking up the sun.

The largest facility of its kind in the world, it is also playing its part in the battle to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change, reducing the Emirate’s CO2 emissions by one million metric tonnes, the equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road.

“This is a laboratory for the world,” said Jorge Perea, executive managing director of Noor Abu Dhabi, who oversaw the US$872 million project, delivering it on schedule and budget.

The technology is developing and the prices are getting lower. It is right now the cheapest source of energy in the world

He said he has welcomed a string of foreign officials and energy ministers to the facility, which was connected to the grid last November and was operating commercially by the summer.

“This country, it is 10 years in front,” he said. “They are investing in the technology and are hiring the best professionals.”

Mr Perea believes the plant’s beauty is in its simplicity. It is run by a small, multi-cultural management team of only seven, an Emirati, Pakistani, Irishman, Syrian, Jordanian and Filipino. Mr Perea, a black belt in karate, is from Spain. On an average day, only around 70 workers will be on site.

He could have increased efficiency by having rotating solar panels, meaning they were constantly aimed at the sun. But this would have meant far higher costs and maintenance requirements, so instead they were installed with a sweeping, curved design to ensure at least some panels would be exposed to maximum sunlight at any one time.

Lightweight structures ensured less steel was used. Cleaning of the panels is carried out once a day, by ‘robots’ and without the need for water. Once a day, large brushes automatically sweep over each panel. In total, the system cleans 800km of panels every 24 hours.

Eight companies submitted proposals for a cleaning solution for the site – essential in a dusty climate. Two were chosen for extensive testing with the eventual winner, provided by a Chinese company, found to be most efficient.

ABU DHABI,  UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , OCTOBER 1 – 2019 :- Robot cleaner cleaning the solar panels at the Noor Solar Power Plant in Sweihan in Abu Dhabi. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News. Story by Daniel

The focus on achieving maximum efficiency while keeping to tight budgets has all meant the energy generated – which is eventually fed to customers by the Emirates Water and Electricity Company (EWEC) – is delivered at a record low cost.

Built as a commercial venture and without subsidies, the cost of 2.42 US cents per kilowatt hour which was described as so low it was “jaw dropping” by industry observers when it was announced. It remains the lowest price in the world for non-subsidised solar.

“The plant is nice but it’s a business,” said Mr Perea. “We need to give a return of investment, and if we introduce a lot of complicated things the cost will go up.

“We have reached this price because of most efficient technology we can use. Engineering is to do the necessary with the minimum cost. It is not architecture; the architect is looking for something nice, something beautiful. But I don’t need a gold pen to write.”

While the solar plant is almost peaceful now, it was not always the case. Almost 3,000 workers helped to build it, laying 7,120km of cables – more than enough to cover the distance between Abu Dhabi and Manilla if they were all laid out in a straight line.

Drones were used to pinpoint the locations of 616,098 ground screws, with data transferred to an unmanned machine to drill holes and with near-perfect accuracy. A worker then inserted the poles, which we then automatically drilled in with precise torque by another machine, this time manned by a human operator. On one particularly productive day during the construction 26,000 solar panels were installed in 24 hours.

But it was not all straightforward – a solution had to be found after Dhub lizards – which have protected status - were found living on the site. Steps were taken to ensure they were not harmed and visitors to the plant are now warned not to feed or disturb the so-called ‘little dinosaurs of the desert’, should they encounter one.

The Noor – Arabic for light – plant started running commercially in June and, for now, remains the largest single-site power plant in the world. A small handful of others, in China and India, have a higher output than Noor’s 1,177 megawatt capacity but were built in different stages or operate as ‘solar parks’ with multiple different operators sharing the same infrastructure.

The Noor operation, meanwhile, is owned 60 per cent by a holding company owned by the Abu Dhabi government with 40 per cent owned by a foreign holding company, split equally between a Japanese and Chinese firm.

While Noor produces enough energy for 90,000 UAE homes, that figure would be even more impressive if not for the high domestic power consumption rates caused mainly by air conditioners. A plant in Europe producing a similar output could power approximately 150,000 homes, due to their lower average consumption.

A herd of camels graze close to the sprawling solar park in Sweihan. Courtesy: Noor Abu Dhabi

But even the plant operators admit Noor will not be a record holder for long. Advances in technology and manufacturing mean the prices of solar energy generation are tumbling all the time. New projects are being planned all the time, with plans for an even bigger solar plant in Al Dhafra, Abu Dhabi, well advanced.

Meanwhile, it is hoped that in the decades to come advances in battery technology will make help solar realise its full potential.

“Batteries are the next step,” Mr Perea said. “The weakness of this plant is we can produce when we have sun. But with batteries, we could produce, store it for the night, and have a more stable grid.

“They are under development now, people are investigating and improving. The batteries are the future, the next step.”

The weakness of this plant is we can produce when we have sun. But with batteries, we could produce, store it for the night, and have a more stable grid

Plants like Noor, it is hoped, will help the UAE hit a 50 per cent clean energy target by 2050. While it is unlikely Noor will be expanded, other major solar plants in the UAE are inevitable and the country’s first nuclear power plant is expected to begin operating shortly.

The plant planned in Al Dhafra will be even bigger than Noor, producing up to almost double the power, and cover approximately 20 square km. EWEC recently invited bids to construct the new plant, which it is hoped will be up and running by 2022.

“Noor is the first project of this size in Abu Dhabi,” said Adel Al Saeedi, director of the privatisation directorate at EWEC. “We started big and we started right. It was the right time, the technology became better and more affordable. The technology is developing and the prices are getting lower, so it’s not only environmentally good but economically feasible as well. It is right now the cheapest source of energy in the world.”

Potential developers were also “excited” by the new project in Al Dhafra, Mr Al Saeedi said, with bids expected to be formally submitted by the end of this month.

“It will be another good project towards achieving the clean and renewable energy targets of the UAE,” he added. “Solar is the future of energy, not only in the UAE, but in the world.

“And the sun, luckily, is available all year long in the UAE.”