Sustainable Development

How solar is powering the Middle East towards renewables

Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup bid team display zero carbon, solar powered cooling technology for open-air stadiums to FIFA inspectors during the FIFA Inspection Visit for the Qatar 2022 World Cup Bid at a showcase stadium in Doha September 14, 2010. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad (QATAR - Tags: SPORT SOCCER ENVIRONMENT SCI TECH) - GM1E69F0J1Y01

The United Arab Emirates wants two-thirds of its electricity to come from carbon-free sources by 2050. Image: REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Sustainable Development

Think about energy generation in the Middle East and you probably think of oil. But in fact, the region is at the forefront of the race to decarbonize energy production.

In March, production started at one of the region’s first solar power plants linked to a storage facility. The Al Badiya plant at Al-Mafraq in Jordan combines a 23 megawatt (MW) solar farm with a 12.6 MWh storage capacity using lithium-ion batteries.

It’s just the latest regional green energy plant to go live. In February, Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, switched on “the world’s largest virtual battery plant”, able to store 648 MWh to balance demand on the grid and keep the city supplied for up to six hours in the event of an outage.

Big is better

That launch followed hot on the heels of the operational start up of what is claimed to be the world’s biggest solar plant, the Noor Abu Dhabi. At 1,177 MW it has double the capacity of the previous record holder, the 550 MW Desert Sunlight solar farm in California.

Last year, Dubai completed a major battery energy storage facility at its huge Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park. And in May of last year Lebanon opened its energy market to allow private-sector solar and wind generating companies to sell electricity to the grid. The aim is to end the country’s dependence on oil for electricity generation.

Image: Statista

So why is the oil-rich Middle East, which still generates most of its electricity from fossil fuels, becoming so keen on green alternatives? The plain fact is that leaders are facing up to climate change and the world’s shift towards renewables, as well as the eventual end of oil production as finite fossil fuel resources diminish over the century.

In a rare interview, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, appeared to embrace the change. “In 50 years, when we might have the last barrel of oil… I can tell you we will celebrate that moment,” he said.

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Solar, wind and hydro

The region has high levels of sunshine, making solar an attractive solution. But Dubai has also commissioned the development of a hydroelectric power plant at the Hatta Dam in the Hajar Mountains. Solar energy will be used to pump water to a high-level reservoir during off-peak times, and stored water will be released to power the hydroelectric plant during the peaks.

The UAE is channelling its considerable oil revenues into alternative energy. By 2030 it plans to spend $160 billion on renewables, with the declared aim of generating two-thirds of its electricity from carbon-free sources by the middle of the century.

This ambitious target – among the most challenging in the region – has also been driven by concerns about climate change. The low-lying coastal cities of the UAE are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Last year the World Economic Forum published a whitepaper calling for the removal of regulatory obstacles to increased innovation in sustainable energy generation. With two-thirds of greenhouse gases created by energy generation, the whitepaper suggested progress was currently too slow to avoid catastrophic climate change.

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Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentClimate ChangeEnergy Transition
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