After decades of relying on carbon-emitting fossil fuels to build their cities in the desert, some oil and gas rich nations of the Gulf are now turning skywards to the sun to meet future energy demands.
Ambitious multi-billion-dollar projects to harness the power of the region’s year-round blazing sun have already been announced by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Global energy summits are being held in the region’s desert capitals while whole communities, research institutes and businesses devoted to the production, promotion and application of renewable energy are being built.
Perhaps most significantly, the region’s nations are speaking of sustainable development and clean energy as a key to ensuring future growth.
Focusing on renewable energy also makes “economic sense” for the Gulf states, said Adnan Amin, director general of the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
With local energy demands rapidly increasing, “it’s much more expensive for them to subsidise their oil consumption than it is to invest in renewable energy,” he said.
The hydrocarbon-producing six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council are still far behind much of the world when it comes to environmental protection, reducing per capita carbon emissions and the use of clean energy to drive their economies.
But there are signs the trend is changing, with the Gulf waking up to the benefits of renewables, specifically the sun.
The region is likely to become “one of the fastest growing in renewable energy investment in the coming years,” said Amin, adding that the controversial decision to base IRENA in a nation ranked third in the list of global per capita carbon emissions has been “vindicated.”
The UAE is “seeing itself as an energy economy for the future, not just an oil economy,” said Amin. They are “investing heavily worldwide and taking forward the cause of renewable energy.”
The renewable energy pride of the UAE is the Masdar City project, designed to have the lowest possible carbon footprint with futuristic electric cars, street lights and air-conditioning all powered by a 10-megawatt on-site solar power plant.
Still in its initial phase, the city today consists of only a few buildings and is home to the Masdar Institute, a research-based post-graduate clean energy academy.
The compound’s buildings are designed to let in the sun but keep out the heat. The temperature in the walkways between the buildings is 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in Abu Dhabi just a few kilometres (miles) away.
“These are the fundamentals of the cities of the future… how you go about the architecture, the waste management. Those aspects of the city of the future have now become a reality,” said Masdar’s clean energy director, Bader Lamki.
He says new building codes in both Abu Dhabi and neighbouring Dubai demand more efficient energy consumption, and governments in both emirates are running energy audits on existing buildings.
Masdar is also about to complete one of the world’s largest Concentrated Solar Power plants in the desert south of Abu Dhabi. Shams 1, a joint venture with Spain’s Abengoa Solar and French Total is set to be complete by the end of 2012.
It will extend over a 2.5-square-kilometre (one square mile) area, have a capacity of 100 megawatts and according to Lamki, prevent approximately 175,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, the equivalent to “taking 15,000 cars off the road or planting 1.5 million trees.”
The announced 2020 target for Abu Dhabi is to have 7 percent of its energy produced by renewables. Dubai’s target is 5 percent by 2030.
In January, Dubai announced plans for a 1,000-megawatt solar power plant. The first phase of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, a 10-megawatt facility, will be completed in 2013.
“Yes, we are building cities in the desert… but we’re working on building those cities sustainably,” said Mohammed Issa Abushahab, head of the UAE foreign ministry’s International Climate Change Division.
Similar steps are being taken in other Gulf countries.
In Saudi Arabia, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy last month announced plans to build 41 gigawatts of solar power capacity over the next two decades.
And in Qatar, the small-population country with the world’s largest per capita ecological footprint and one of the largest global exporters of gas, has announced plans to build solar-powered air-conditioned stadiums to host the 2020 football World Cup.
Sven Teske, Clean Energy director at Greenpeace International, described the Gulf bloc as the “sleeping giant” of renewable energy, but said the steps being taken so far are still small.
The region could be “a huge market, a huge centre and hub for solar and wind energy,” said Teske. “But right now, we see a lot of conferences, a lot of announcements, real action is still missing.”
On a positive note, he said at least “there is a recognition, an understanding… that it’s time to do something.”