The world’s largest single-site solar photovoltaic (PV) plant began commercial operations in Abu Dhabi, near the town of Sweihan, in late April 2019. The 1177-MW Noor Abu Dhabi solar plant features 3.2m solar panels spread across 8 sq km. Constructed with an investment of Dh3.2bn ($871m), the joint venture between Abu Dhabi Power Corporation (ADP ower) and a consortium of China’s Jinko Solar Holding and Japan’s Marubeni Corporation will provide enough power to meet the demand of 90,000 households. Upon completion, it will also offset Co emissions by 1m tonnes per year, a level equivalent to taking 200,000 cars off the road. Several engineering challenges posed by the harsh conditions of the desert had to be overcome in order to successfully execute the project. Waterless cleaning robots are keeping dust off the vast solar panels, and testing in high temperatures was a vital part of the initial research.
In 2008 the government released the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, laying out a commitment to a shift towards renewable energy and sustainable growth. The long-term development plan aims to foster a diversified economy that is integrated into global markets. A range of projects and strategies have been introduced that dovetail with the emirate’s overarching policy framework. These include the UAE Green Economy Initiative of 2012, which set sustainable energy and environmental standards, as well as UAE Energy Strategy 2050, launched in 2017. The latter policy framework set the objective of increasing the contribution of renewables to the total energy mix, specifying that the share of clean energy would grow from 25% in 2017 to 50% by 2050. Solar, wind and biofuels would account for 44% of the mix, with nuclear accounting for 6%. The carbon footprint of energy production is expected to fall by 70% by 2050 under the plan.
Abu Dhabi has considerable potential in solar power, with the emirate having 3568 annual average solar hours – or 9.7 hours per day – and an average daily solar radiation level of 5.6 KWh per sq metre. In 2019 the maximum daily solar radiation level exceeded 7.5 KWh per sq metre, with the highest radiation levels being found both inland and in areas of greater exposure, according to figures from Statistics Centre – Abu Dhabi. As such, Al Ain and the islands experienced the highest average daily solar radiation levels of 5.8 and 5.7 KWh per sq metre, respectively in 2019.
While Abu Dhabi has traditionally been dependent on hydrocarbons-fuelled power stations to meet its demand for electricity, in recent years the emirate has been working to diversify its energy mix to head off fluctuations in global oil prices and combat climate change. As the UAE relies on natural gas for electricity and water generation, shifts in price and supply have seen the country increase natural gas imports in recent years. The move away from fossil fuels for power generation has brought with it opportunities in renewable energies such as solar, as well as cleaner alternatives like nuclear.
The direct cost of a dependence on hydrocarbons – along with the opportunity cost of using domestically produced gas for power production instead of generating export revenue – is an issue the authorities are aiming to address. At the same time, the cost of the infrastructure needed to construct renewable plants has fallen, as has the price of energy produced, thanks to technological advances and the introduction of competitive auctions of independent power producer (IPP) contracts.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the global weighted average cost of electricity from solar PV fell by 13% in 2018, as did the cost of hydropower (down 11%), bioenergy (down 14%) and concentrated solar power (CSP), which fell by 26%. The UAE has been leading the race in lowering solar PV prices, with the Noor Abu Dhabi plant securing a tariff of $0.0242 per KWh after a process of competitive bidding. This was the lowest solar tariff in the world when it was submitted in 2016. However, in subsequent years the market has become increasingly competitive in terms of the cost of producing electricity from solar PV sources. In February 2018 Saudi firm ACWA Power won a bid to develop a 300-MW project in Saudi Arabia with a tariff of $0.0234 per KWh, with projects in the US and Brazil having subsequently exceeding that. A new record was then set by Portugal, after a winning bid of $0.0165 per KWh was recorded in 2019 for 1.2 GW worth of solar projects was awarded to France’s Akuo Energy and Akura Power in 2019, along with the Spanish renewables giant Iberdrola.
Nevertheless, in April 2020 Abu Dhabi once again took the global lead in solar prices, with Emirates Water and Electricity Company (EWEC) – a subsidiary of ADP ower – receiving a bid of $0.0135 per KWh for its planned 20-sq-km, 2-GW solar PV plant in the Al Dhafra Region. The winning bid was awarded by EWEC to Engie, a consortium of China’s Jinko Solar and France’s EDF, following a technical and commercial bidding round involving four other consortia: Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power; Japan’s Marubeni Corporation; and a consortium of Japan’s SoftBank and Saudi Arabia’s Alfanar Group. The winning consortium is set to form a special-purpose vehicle with EWEC to operate the PV plant as an IPP.
The auction also includes an optional bid for the provision of battery storage – an important factor, as this can address the inconsistency of solar generation. Power can be stored in batteries so that a plant can continue to supply the grid, even at night. This could be crucial going forwards as power generation shifts from the more easily adjusted gas-fired stations to always-on nuclear and intermittent solar. The price for power derived from solar is expected to fall further in the years ahead, making solar PV not just environmentally sound, but also commercially cheaper than other alternatives.
Abu Dhabi has played a leading role in developing infrastructure to support the green energy transition. In January 2019 the emirate opened the region’s first grid-scale battery deployment network and the world’s largest virtual battery plant, providing a capacity of 108 MW distributed over 10 sites. The integrated energy storage and transmission system is designed to address issues of intermittency related to renewable energy sources.
In 2006 Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar) was established with a mandate to develop commercially viable renewable energy projects, both at home and abroad. Wholly owned by Mubadala Investment Company, Masdar is the driving force behind Masdar City, a 6m-sq-metre development on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi City that broke ground in 2008. Masdar City aims to be the world’s most sustainable low-carbon city, with solar PV taking a central role in its energy supply. A 10-MW solar plant was opened there in 2009, producing around 17,500 MWh of solar power via 87,780 multi-crystalline and thin-film modules. The plant resulted in a reduction of 15,000 tonnes of CO emissions a year, and Masdar City is expected to further offset emissions with 1-MW solar PV installations from rooftop panels on the city’s buildings.
Masdar City is also the centre of renewable energy research and development (R&D). It is not only the home of IRENA’s headquarters, but also Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which forms part of Khalifa University. In mid-2015 the research centre inaugurated its Masdar Solar Hub, the first independent solar testing and R&D centre in the UAE. The solar research facility aims to fast-track the development of technologies including PV, solar thermal and energy storage. The Masdar Solar Hub has three divisions: the PV Test Centre, which evaluates PV equipment; the Concentrating PV (CPV) Test Centre, a joint venture with Spain’s Instituto de Sistemas Fotovoltaicos that provides testing and evaluation of CPV systems under local environmental conditions; and the Masdar Institute Solar Platform, an R&D centre. Looking at solar thermal technologies, in particular, the platform has a beam concentrating tower for CSP experiments, as well as a solar field, hot oil loop, solar irradiation platform, compact Fresnel reflector and a double-effect absorption chiller for solar cooling research.
Abu Dhabi has also been spearheading CSP development for years, opening the Shams 1 CSP plant in 2013. Shams was the UAE’s first large-scale solar plant and the first of its kind of the MENA region. The facility has a 100-MW capacity, with 768 parabolic trough collectors on a 2.5-sq-km site in the Al Dhafra Region. It generates enough power to supply 20,000 homes, playing an important role in meeting Abu Dhabi’s goal of diversifying its energy mix. Masdar has a 60% interest in the plant, with France’s Total and Spain’s Abengoa each holding 20%.