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United Arab Emirates Going from Brown to Yellow with Solar Energy

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Abu Dhabi sustainability week might be shining a light on big renewable energy projects, but more practical uses are already underway in the United Arab Emirates. These serve as a sample of the ground breaking initiatives the Persian, or Arabian, Gulf is expected to witness as it moves towards a sustainable future.

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Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority recently launched a 20-seat electric water taxi powered 20-kilowatt (kW) motor with solar panels on top. It has 87 percent lower emissions than a regular abra, or traditional boat, would. Operations are expected to occur on Dubai Creek, Jumeirah Beach, the new islands, and the Dubai Water Canal. A total of 61 boats are planned to be operational by 2020.

On the road, work has begun on two solar-powered bus shelters. This is part of a trial for shelters in off-the-grid locations. Generated power will be used to power lights, air conditioners, and billboards.

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In Abu Dhabi, Masdar has launched the region’s first electric bus. The eco-bus route will have six stops, including Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi Central Bus Station, and Masdar City; service will be free until the end of March. Seating 30, it travels 150 km (about 93 miles) per charge, and solar panels are used to power auxiliary systems.

Experts are predicting that global solar installations will grow steadily in the coming years—5.2 percent annually between 2017 and 2022. Combination(s) of batteries, solar, and other renewables is expected to cause dramatic transformation(s) in the world’s energy market. Some of this is already being seen at street level.

According to Middlesex University Dubai lecturer in media and UAE-based member of Climate Reality Project, a non-profit organization involved in both education and advocacy related to climate change, Stephen King:

“Busses, taxis, and other fleet vehicles are driven continuously, contributing more to urban pollution than vehicles of similar engine sizes. Providing electric options for these vehicles is a positive step in improving air quality, which is a key issue (in the Gulf.)”

Middlesex University Dubai lecturer in media and Climate Reality Project member Stephen King

According to the Climate Reality Project, several studies show that electric vehicles are likely to cost the same as, or even less than, regular internal combustion vehicles within the next decade. This is true even without incentives.

A report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) from February 2017 found that the unsubsidized cost of ownership of battery-powered electric vehicles will fall below that of vehicles with internal combustion engines by 2022. A steadily increasing rate of adoption was projected, reaching global sales of 41 million—25 percent of total market share—by 2040.

“Solar power can take on a role in mostly bulk energy generation in the daytime. Solar photovoltaics (PV) is now one of the lowest-cost generation options in sunny regions, with prices below $25 per megawatt (MW) in sunny areas, where political stability makes the cost of capital low.”

Jenny Chase, head of solar at BNEF

Chase stated that it is now possible to generate energy without significant carbon dioxide emissions. This can be done for close to—even less than—the cost of using fossil fuels.

“This will be incredibly attractive to utilities and governments. The Middle East (is likely to) build solar power plants for a large chunk of its electricity demand increase in the future, at least until the daytime need is well met. Electric vehicles for public transport are also likely to be used increasingly, possibly lagging adoption in oil-rich countries where the fuel costs are less. Some batteries will probably be used for shifting demand to the daytime, and e-vehicles will be encouraged to charge in the daytime. There will also be some rooftop solar adoption where government policy supports it.”

Jenny Chase, head of solar at BNEF

“Although solar energy technologies have been around for decades, it is only in recent years that installations have really started to take off. Falling costs, technological improvements, increased competition and government incentives have been key drivers of this growth. Clearly, what was once a niche technology is now firmly in the mainstream. Solar has a lot of potential in the region and around the world, and a number of important projects have been initiated in recent years.”

Middlesex University Dubai lecturer in media and Climate Reality Project member Stephen King

When it comes to generating six hours of full electricity a day, challenges remain.

Kyle Weber, an associate at Evera, which aims to identify and address key sustainability gaps in the mobility sector, stated:

“It is a resource that requires a lot of understanding to utilize well. In the case of an electric bus, you need to store the energy between when it’s generated and when it’s utilized, which means more cost, complexity, and things that can go wrong.”

Evera associate Kyle Weber

Evera is looking into charging batteries outside of the buses during the course of the day, and then swapping them in and out of the vehicles while they are being used.

“Solar is also great for things like process heat. Heat can be used to do all sorts of things from cooking to generating steam, and desalinating water to powering a pump or producing clean hydrogen.”

Evera associate Kyle Weber

The Gulf is wholeheartedly adopting solar power. Several projects are underway across the region, including in the UAE, where there are plans to increase power-generation capacity by 21 GW. Solar capacity is expected to contribute 26.1 percent of the total additional capacity.

According to the Climate Reality Project, the world’s largest concentrated solar plant is due to be completed by 2021, near Dubai, and expected to have a 1,000-MW capacity.

Dubai is home to the Middle East’s first utility scale solar-project. The UAE has 5.45 GW of new solar projects in development as of March 2017. The Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Solar Park is expected to be the largest concentrated solar plant in the world when it is completed in 2030. Dubai aims to produce 75 percent of their energy from clean sources by 2050. The target mix for 2030 includes 25 percent solar.

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