Here comes the sun

With the cost of fossil fuels rising and supplies diminishing, the quest for alternative power supplies is set to rise worldwide. Is it time for the UAE to make use of its abundance of solar energy? Alison Luke reports

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By  Alison Luke Published  August 25, 2006

|~|3p29200-body.gif|~|Despite year-round sunshine, few GCC states have embraced solar power on new construction projects.|~|The news that Solar Technologies FZE is setting up a research and development facility in Dubai should be applauded. With the city heating up nicely for the summer you need only step outside for a few minutes to realise how powerful the sun is in the region and the energy available for harnessing.

Solar power is one of the region’s most abundant energy resources, but to date it has remained largely untapped. Aside from the obvious reason of the availability of fossil fuels, the cost of solar technology has proved prohibitive, however with demands for power set to increase dramatically over the short-term and the relatively capital and running costs of solar systems falling, it is now making economic sense to consider this alternative energy source.

In 2004, Dubai’s power consumption was 16,363 GWh, with 70% of this used by commercial and residential buildings. The economic standing of the region and boom in construction however is causing this figure to rise furiously.

Demand for electricity is currently rising at 7-10% per year, over twice the global average of 3%, and some sources are pitching future annual growth at 14-18% per annum for the next five years. It has also been reported that industry sources estimate an investment of US $150 billion is needed by countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to cope with the demand in the short-term.

Many are now seeing solar as a viable option. Last year $30 billion was invested in the renewable energy sector worldwide and the International Energy Group reports forecasts suggesting that renewable energy sources will provide almost 50% of the UAE’s total energy needs by 2050. Of this, solar energy is expected to be the biggest supplier.

“Solar energy is abundant in the UAE. It one of the highest rates in the world,” explains Dr Mohsen Aboulnaga, chairman and CEO of the Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC). “We must use it in many forms such as water desalination, generating electricity for lighting and air conditioning to reduce the CO2 Emission and protect the environment,” he stresses. The EGBC estimates the available power from solar energy in the UAE as around 2,400 W/m2.

The EGBC also stresses the benefits to the environment, health and productivity gained when using renewable sources such as solar power. “High-performance building utilising solar energy is the way forward to energy efficient building and healthy indoor environments,” stresses Aboulnaga. “In a country like the UAE, where people spend more than 90% of their time indoors, green buildings offer healthier and more efficient solutions to owners, occupants and businesses.”

Solar Technologies’ new r&d facility involves a AED50 million investment with Dubai Techno Park. The 37,000 m2 development will include a number of facilities for the development of high technology solar energy products and solutions and the first r&d center of this kind for designing and building solar power plants.

The firm plans to design and assemble large-scale solar thermal solutions including the power plants, plus air conditioning solutions for medium and large-scale projects.

The solar power plants will use ‘concentrating solar power’ plant technology to produce electric power by converting the sun’s energy into high temperature heat using various mirror configurations. Some hybrid systems are also being planned, combining solar power with natural gas to give users additional options.

Target clients for the firm will include energy and water distribution firms, real estate developments, industrial facilities and energy projects in the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain.

This is the second high profile solar development to feature at the Dubai Techno Park. Pacific Controls Systems’ Green Building headquarters is already under construction and is due to be operational in November 2006. The building was recently awarded the Leader in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), the first building in the Middle East to achieve the accolade.

Aboulnaga has welcomed these moves: “I am pleased to see new projects are utilising photovoltaics in buildings to generate electricity. Pacific Controls Systems headquarters in Dubai is an excellent example.

“The building utilises solar energy in many applications, namely thermally efficient roofs, walls and windows; and hvac systems incorporating solar air conditioning using absorption chillers.” The building includes 100 kW of solar energy for lighting and air conditioning systems.

Mario Seneviratne, Secretary of the EGBC and a LEED-accredited professional explains that operating costs are important to any utility project like a central cooling plant. “A green building has low operating costs as well as environmentally responsible design – two criteria that are important to the owner,” he stresses.
In addition to the projects at the Techno Park, other movements towards more use of solar power are taking place in the region in general. The Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority is to set up a solar energy trial. To last for at least a year, this will involve solar panels being placed on a car park canopy and benches at various locations in the capital. The electricity generated will be fed into the city’s power grid.
The Ministry of Electricity and Water in Dubai is also researching the use of solar energy and solar wind turbines in the UAE. Smaller scale systems being used on projects in Dubai include hazard warning lights for roads and warning lights for schools. PV systems are also being used for water meters on the main pipelines from Jebel Ali to Dubai. More unusual uses being mooted include the use of solar-powered abras on Dubai Creek.
Perhaps one of the most telling signs of a future surge in the uptake of solar power in the region is the interest of international manufacturers. Such firms are now seeing demand growing and are looking to up their stakes in the global marketplace. A spokesman for BP Solar confirmed: “The company has plans to aggressively expand our solar business. We currently have factories in India, Spain and the US; the Middle East has not been a key market [for the firm] but we are looking at opportunities [in the region].”
EGBC is hoping to see more uptake and further ‘green’ buildings developed in the UAE in the near future. “It has been demonstrated that energy and water efficient buildings have been able to reduce their operating costs by more than 50% by employing a well-integrated green design concept,” says Aboulnaga.
EEG chairperson and founding member of the EGBC Mrs Al Marashi adds: “With the current pace of construction, what we need is a sustainability plan. Green buildings will play a critical role in this due to their ability to converge economics and environment in a manner that protects the environment and enhances profits and the wellbeing of inhabitants.”
Solar energy will be critical to plans for sustainable energy use in the UAE and uptake by clients is set to create new opportunities for those in the construction industry. It’s time to gain the knowledge needed and get prepared for what seems set to be a fast-growing market. ||**||

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