While the vast majority of Abu Dhabi’s electricity today is generated by gas-fired power plants, the government remains committed to the development of renewable energy sources. The emirate has also taken steps to establish nuclear energy plants, with the first of four facilities expected to come on-line in 2017. Both renewable and nuclear energy could help Abu Dhabi meet future electricity demands without having to source new or additional supplies of natural gas.

GREEN GOALS: The emirate plans to generate 7% of its power generation capacity from renewable sources by 2020. Describing itself as “a commercially driven enterprise that operates across the full spectrum of the renewable energy and sustainable technology industry”, Masdar spearheads Abu Dhabi’s drive to become a model of sustainability regionally and worldwide. This government-owned entity has three integrated business units and an independent, research-driven graduate university – the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MI). The three business units consist of Masdar Capital, which invests in clean energy and sustainable technology companies; Masdar Clean Energy, which develops and invests in large-scale renewable power projects such as solar and wind farms; and Masdar City, a cleantech cluster and special economic zone that is under construction as a sustainable urban development.

The government’s commitment to renewable energy was affirmed in a January 2012 announcement by the Executive Council, the emirate’s primary decision-making body. As part of a list of development projects across sectors like health, education and housing, the council noted the government’s investments in renewable energy projects, including the 100-MW Shams solar power plant and the Sir Bani Yas wind farm. “Both of these projects will help support the government’s vision of having 7% of its energy needs supplied by renewable energy,” the council said in a statement.

SOLAR: The project at Shams is being developed under a 25-year contract by the Shams Power Company, a special purpose vehicle owned by Masdar (60%), Abengoa Solar (20%) and France’s Total (20%). Construction of Shams 1, as the facility is known, began in 2010 and should be completed by the end of 2012, at a total cost of $700m. One of the world’s largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plants, Shams 1 will feature a solar field of 768 parabolic trough collectors covering 2.5 sq km. Unlike photovoltaic (PV) technology, CSP works by focusing sunlight that is concentrated by mirrors, which heats a coolant to generate steam that in turn drives a conventional turbine.

Masdar has also invested in PV solar projects, including a 10-MW plant located at Masdar City, a special economic zone and technology cluster located about 17 km from downtown Abu Dhabi City that aims to integrate and showcase clean technologies. Constructed in 2009, the plant provides power for MI, as well as for the ongoing construction activities at the development site. During certain times of the day, the facility produces more energy than is consumed at Masdar City, with the excess then sold to the national grid.

The 10-MW plant has provided an opportunity for local experts to better understand how PV technologies respond to the region’s climate, knowledge that will be useful when it comes time to develop Nour 1, a 100-MW PV plant that Masdar also has in the works.

COLLECTIVE EFFORT: Abu Dhabi has also had some success in encouraging individuals, businesses and government organisations to install rooftop PV panels, with an option to sell excess production to the national grid. In September 2011, for example, Masdar and Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority jointly announced that they had placed PV rooftop panels on 11 government and private buildings. The size of each installation varied from 15 KW at an individual villa to 1 MW at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, with the total capacity amounting to 2.3 MW.

However, when it comes to rooftop installations, the biggest challenge may be convincing enough homeowners and businesses to install these panels. Without a combined capacity of at least 400-500 MW, rooftop solar panels are unlikely to have much of an impact on the emirate’s plans for building new power plants. Assuming that the capacity of an individual home rooftop unit is 15 KW, more than 25,000 would be required to meet this minimum. In response to some of the unknowns related to PV solar generation the Regulation and Supervision Bureau (RSB) has established a fast-track licensing procedure at a minimum cost to help potential producers and to date it has issued a number of “self-regulating” licences in the emirate.

WIND: Besides solar, Masdar has also invested in generating power through the use of wind turbines. In 2008 Masdar signed an agreement with the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), a government-owned entity that was established in 2006 to carry out projects in the tourism sector, to develop an onshore windfarm on Sir Bani Yas Island. Located about 250 km south-west of Abu Dhabi City, Sir Bani Yas is the largest natural island in the UAE and promoted by TDIC as a tourist destination. The conceptual design and technical evaluations for the project, which has a targeted capacity of 28.8 MW, were completed in 2010. Meanwhile, the island is already home to the Middle East’s largest single wind turbine – 65 metres tall and with a production capacity of 850 KW per hour.

MASDAR CITY: While some of these individual projects may have made headlines, Masdar is perhaps best known as the developer of Masdar City. This futuristic development, expected to be completed by 2025, will eventually be home to 40,000 residents and hundreds of businesses. As of mid-2012, the city was already the location of the MI campus, which includes six buildings comprising residential facilities and laboratories. Masdar City’s first commercial facility, the Incubator Building, should be completed by the end of 2012 and will subsequently be joined by the Siemens Middle East headquarters. However, the development of Masdar has experienced some delays. In 2010 company officials announced they were adjusting the project’s timeline in response to the global economic crisis and market conditions for residential and commercial property. Additionally, a newly designed Masdar and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquarters complex is currently under construction.

NUCLEAR: Another source of energy – nuclear – has also emerged as an important alternative to hydrocarbons for the UAE as a whole. In 2008 the country’s government conducted a study into its energy needs and electricity generation capacity. It concluded that nuclear energy was the best choice for the UAE, given that it is safe, clean, commercially viable and delivers significant volumes of base-load electricity. In 2009 Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as president of the UAE, established the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), the organisation charged with implementing the UAE nuclear energy programme. ENEC is responsible for the deployment, ownership and operation of nuclear energy plants within the UAE, working closely with the Abu Dhabi and federal governments to ensure that the peaceful nuclear energy programme is aligned with the industrial infrastructure plans of the UAE.

ENEC also oversees the work of Korean Electric Power Corporation, the contractor that was chosen in 2009 to design, construct and operate four nuclear energy plants to be located in Al Gharbia, each of which is expected to have a capacity of about 1400 MW. The first is due to come on-line in 2017, with an additional one each year through 2020. Following the approval of the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation and the Environmental Agency – Abu Dhabi, ENEC began construction of Unit 1 at Baraka in July 2012 and is on track to deliver electricity by May 2017.

Nuclear energy will provide safe, reliable, clean and efficient electricity to power the growth of the nation, according to Mohammed Al Hammadi, the CEO of ENEC, in addition to reducing carbon emissions by 12m tonnes a year. The additional 5200-MW boost in net capacity will help Abu Dhabi to meet its growing demand for electricity, which the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company (ADWEC) has projected will hit 16,244 MW by 2015 and 19,029 MW in 2017.

POWERING ON, SAFELY: The commissioning of the nuclear programme in 2017-20 provides the Abu Dhabi Transmission Company with both challenges and opportunities. Aside from the obvious challenge of ensuring that the transmission infrastructure is in place to transfer power from the plant to demand centres, there is a need to ensure the security of the system, particularly in the post-Fukushima operating environment. Another challenge is balancing the output from the nuclear plant with that of existing co-generation production used for water desalination, to ensure there is efficient supply of water and power to match the needs of the emirates. The opportunity that this development brings is to diversify the portfolio of generation to include an alternative fuel, while enhancing the network in the emirates to benefit existing and prospective users of the GCC electricity grid.

In addition, nuclear power generation will also have an impact on the choice of technology for water production. Reverse osmosis is likely to become more attractive than thermal processes due to its reliance on electricity, and ADWEC continues to review future generation selection on a cost basis, as per its economic purchase obligation. Reverse osmosis technology may help raise the electric load duration during the winter months when the demand for air-conditioning is at a minimum. This will improve the existing generation fleet’s power-to-water ratio while simultaneously maintaining the efficiency of the overall system at relatively higher levels year round.

The government’s commitment to alternative sources of energy is impressive and encouraging, especially given that Abu Dhabi is home to 8% of global crude oil reserves and has enough hydrocarbons reserves to last at least a century. Nonetheless, it has committed billions of dollars to establishing the emirate as a centre for renewable energy and is working to bring on-line four nuclear reactors safely. This signals that Abu Dhabi is committed to finding alternative sources of energy for its growing economy, as well as helping to ensure that the environment remains unharmed in the process.