A shining beacon in the search for energy answers

Finding the answer to the problem of the world’s largest ecological footprint may be over our heads, as Conrad Egbert and Hugo Berger find out.

Shine on: a minute’s worth of sun would meet world energy needs for an entire year.
Shine on: a minute’s worth of sun would meet world energy needs for an entire year.

With a quick look at the stands present in the exhibition hall at the World Energy Summit that was held last week in Abu Dhabi, it was quite clear that solar energy has finally made it to the top of the agenda. Solar energy products and consultants were out in force.

According to the Solar Energy Research and Education Foundation, enough sunlight falls on the Earth's surface each minute to meet world energy demands for an entire year.


I am sure the technology will improve, but at present it is not incredibly efficient.

The sun is a fusion reactor delivering 1.52 x 1018 kWh per year to earth. All of mankind's energy needs a total less than 0.1% of this amount.

And with the sun being in abundance in this part of the world, one would imagine that better use of its energy would have surely made complete sense by now.

According to a report by the WWF in 2006, the UAE's ecological footprint was the largest in the world.

The WWF is currently working in partnership with Al Basma Al Deeiya - the ecological footprint initiative which involves the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi, the Ministry of Environment and Water, Emirates Wild Life Society and the Global Footprint Network - to produce a new report, which will be issued in May.

A spokesperson for Al Basma Al Deeiya, said: "I think a mix of technologies to create energy is the way forward; whether it be geothermal, hydropower, solar energy or wind energy.

"Seventy-six percent of the ecological footprint for the UAE was contributed by the energy sector, so the focus on solar energy and other alternative sources of energy is welcomed by us."

Also, with construction being among the top three sectors in the region and therefore being a big contributor to the ecological footprint, what role could it play in bringing about a change?

Robert Viehweger, managing director - business development, for American company Green Light Energy based in Dubai said that small amendments made in the construction sector such as the materials it uses and how they're used post-construction, could make a big difference to energy consumption.

"It's just a matter of the region becoming more environmentally responsible," said Viehweger.

"Once that it established, everything else will fall into place.

"Sunshine in this region is almost as certain as the air we breathe, so it's a shame that it's not used more."

Viehweger added: "There are so many ways and so many products that can be incorporated into a building to make it more energy efficient. For example, we have solar balconies that incorporate thin film photovoltaics (PV) with structural glazing that generate electricity.

Granted, energy efficient products may cost a little more, but so much money is being spent here on buildings anyway, so I doubt that products that cost a little more would have a major impact on business.

Raz Sobhani, managing director, RS Consultants, which is an expert consultant in solar energy, agreed that more needs to be done in terms of solar energy, along with the government enforcing energy efficient products in construction.

"At the moment there is very little call for solar panels in this area, which is surprising because there is so much sunshine.

"One of the problems in this part of the world is the number of high-rise buildings being built. You have many beautiful buildings with beautiful architecture, but as they use so much glass they are often very inefficient.

"Also, in order to produce one megawatt of energy, you need one km2 of solar panels, and there just isn't the room on most buildings for this.

"In theory you could have a building clad on one side with solar panels, but as the panels are not transparent people living there will not be able to see out.

Sobhani added that the aesthetics of living have to be considered alongside the environmental benefits.

"Of course, you could use solar energy just for a specific part of the building, such as the air-conditioning or the water heating, but we are a long way off having a whole building powered by solar energy.

"Another issue is that most solar panels can only use about 10-15% of the output of the sun.

"I am sure the technology will improve, but at present it is not incredibly efficient.

"Of course, if the government tells the construction industry that they have to include solar panels then people will have no choice.

Energy efficiency can be maximised if certain features and products are incorporated into the design of a residential, commercial or utility building.

James Robson, vice president and general manager at glass coating company, Applied Materials said that energy efficient façades in buildings would also go a long way in bringing down the level of energy consumption in the region.

"Solar-control coatings keep the heat of the sun from coming inside a building thus helping them stay cool in the summer," said Robson.

"This takes off the load of the air-conditioning in a building, sometimes up to 50%. Constructing buildings that work well because of the products used in them can make a big difference to the way the region uses energy. In Europe, it's mandatory to have these products in buildings. It should be made mandatory here as well.

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