Zawya: Gulf shows signs of green revolution

It is not the sort of thing you expect to see in the middle of oil-rich Abu Dhabi, but here in a sandy spot by the emirate’s airport is a field of solar panels so vast it could easily blanket several football pitches.

It is, say some, a sign of a green revolution poised to transform the Gulf’s energy landscape.

This may seem unlikely in a region with a ferocious appetite for air conditioning and desalinated water, and the distinction of being home to the world’s highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases – Qatar – host of this week’s UN climate talks.

“But it’s a necessity,” says Bader Al Lamki, head of clean energy at Masdar, the state-controlled company that built this solar plant to power Masdar City, a cluster of futuristic low-carbon buildings down the road.

With 8 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves, Abu Dhabi is not about to desert the fossil fuel business any time soon, he says. “But we also feel it’s important that renewables step in as a parallel source of energy we should embrace and deploy.”

Others are more emphatic about the region’s prospects. “This could be the world’s next renewable energy centre,” says Dubai-based Mark Robson of the Oliver Wyman consultancy, which has just compiled a global ranking of countries’ energy sustainability with the World Energy Council. The top 40 nations did not include a single Gulf country.

But the large sums some countries are starting to spend on renewables will change this, he says, and the needs are obvious.
Saudi Arabia now burns a third of its oil output each day to produce drinkable water and electricity. “And this one third is growing at such a rate that in the next 25 years they could potentially become a net importer,” Mr Robson says. “So they really realise they have to do something.”

This is the main reason the kingdom has announced plans to spend $109bn on solar power in coming years and build its own green city, says Frank Wouters of Irena, the International Renewable Energy Agency.

“They are burning money and they know this,” he says, adding: “Saudi Arabia is a sleeping volcano” that will one day erupt as a green powerhouse and take people by surprise.

The three-year-old Irena is itself an example of the Gulf’s green transformation. Plans for the intergovernmental agency were hatched in Germany but its headquarters have ended up in Abu Dhabi, where it is due to move into Masdar City.

For now, Abu Dhabi is undoubtedly the Gulf’s green leader. When Masdar’s vast solar power plant started generating power three years ago, the 10 megawatt station was said to be the biggest of its type in the Middle East.

Now the company is close to finishing a 100MW plant outside Abu Dhabi that will use mirrors to “concentrate” sunlight and heat oil-filled tubes, producing steam that drives turbines to generate electricity.

Masdar has also invested in clean power projects around the world, from the London Array offshore wind farm in the UK to solar plants in Spain and Mauritania.

But it is best known for Masdar City, which it enthusiastically declared nearly six years ago would be “the world’s first zero-carbon city”, costing $22bn and finished by 2016.

The impact of the financial crisis has reduced the budget and delayed the building schedule. A more humble Masdar now prefers to call its project a “low-carbon” city rather than the world’s first zero anything.

That has not stopped critics deriding it as a wasteful extravagance, or “green Disneyland”, that would have been more useful if its huge budget had been spent distributing solar panels to ordinary residents.

It would be a mistake to write the place off completely. Its Masdar Institute has been graduating students since 2010. Its professors are adapting western energy efficiency ideas to desert conditions, and next year should see its population jump as Siemens, the Germany industrial group, completes its Middle East headquarters next door.

The more potent criticism of such efforts so far is that they are largely one-off projects funded by the region’s rulers, rather than the green electricity subsidies Europe in particular has introduced to encourage ordinary households and businesses to become clean generators.

This is about to change, says Fahad bin Mohammed Al-Attiya, head of Qatar’s national food security programme and a key figure in the UN climate negotiations.

Qatar is working on introducing so-called feed-in-tariff green power subsidies, he says, as part of a plan to put about 1,800MW of solar into the grid by 2018, roughly 16 to 18 per cent of its total electricity needs.

It is also upgrading its power grid to cope with the increase in renewable power.

But the green revolution has its limits. Qatar is unlikely to be making any splashy pledges of climate funding this week, he says, given how heavily its economy relies on hydrocarbons.

“We didn’t cause the problem and therefore to ask us to pay for it is a bit unfair,” he says. “That being said, we’re investing heavily to diversify and so that’s, if you want to look at it, our contribution.”