United Arab Emirates Opens Largest Solar Energy Plant in the Region

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The city-state of Dubai is no stranger to being bold and innovative. Simply look at the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, the Burj al Arab, one of the only 7 star luxury hotels in the world, and the man-made  Palm Islands and this next bit of engineering should come as no surprise. The Shams 1 complex is a 100-megawatt (MW) solar array built by the UAE’s Masdar Corporation with considerable help from France’s Total and Spain’s Abengoa Solar. It only took three years to complete at a cost of just about $600 million.

This complex is a huge step for the oil-rich state of Dubai.  In a region where fossil fuels are heavily subsidized and alternative energy is not a major focus, the Shams 1 complex is 10 times larger than anything else in the country. Considering the vast expanse of desert on the interior of the country, the potential for solar power is tremendous. Currently, Dubai has set a goal of 7 percent of all electricity production by renewable sources by 2020. While this is well below the targets of European and American goals, it is a very viable step toward independence from fossil fuels. To reach this goal, the UAE would need to build at least seven more plants the same size as Shams 1.

To put this into perspective, the magnitude of the Shams 1 plant cannot be understated. The Shams 1 campus has 258,048 parabolic mirrors, 192 solar collector assembly loops (each loop contains eight solar collector assemblies), 768 solar collector assembly units and 27, 648 absorber pipes.

The actions of Dubai may have been spurred by plans from Saudi Arabia to build 41,000 MW of solar power arrays by 2032. President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan said, as he inaugurated the power station, “The inauguration of Shams 1 is a major milestone in our country’s economic diversification and a step towards long-term energy security. It is also a very strategic project that will diversify our economy from hydrocarbon to an economy based on knowledge.”

When the holders of a large portion of the fossil-fuel reserves in a region decide it is time to diversify and embrace renewable energy, we have taken a major step in bringing a greener world online. This is exactly the forward thinking that will help the world transition away from burning fossil fuels for everyday energy needs. Of course, the sheer potential for energy production in the desert regions is unparalleled in the world, and we could see the UAE as looking to maintain their position as a major player in worldwide energy markets in the future. We cannot consider this as purely an ideological change, although we can hope. But, as the Sheik said, “The domestic production of renewable energy extends the life of our country’s valuable hydrocarbon resources and supports the growth of a promising new industry.”

What do you think? Is this step by the UAE a sign of things to come from other desert countries? Could this be the next industrial revolution for countries like Chad, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia?