New generation

As governments embrace a greener future, can renewable sources remedy the problem of crippling power shortages? Jamie Stewart reports on the region's plans for a greener future.

NEWS, Projects

As governments embrace a greener future, can renewable sources remedy the problem of crippling power shortages? Jamie Stewart reports on the region's plans for a greener future.

Reports have been doing the rounds of late concerning the GCC's long term energy strategy. Although if the reports are accurate, energy crisis might be a more appropriate term.

The warning began to sound with the release in June of the International Energy Outlook 2008 report, published by the US-based Energy Information Administration.

You cannot enable the authorities or the experts to specify exactly what the power demands are. - Sami Deek, project director, Al Shafar General Contracting.

The report predicted that delivered energy consumption in the Middle East by end user sector will rise from 22.9 to 36.8 quadrillion BTUs, a rise of 61%.

A quadrillion BTU, the unit in which economies measure their energy production and consumption, is equal to around 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or 170 million barrels of crude oil.

A second report quoted by sections of the media, released by the international economic forecasting firm Global Insight, carried within its pages an even more dire prediction.

It said that Gulf energy consumption will increase by 50% over the next five years alone, while power generation will increase by only 30%.

You do not need a computer to do the math. And even if you did have one, chances are, by 2013, you'd have no means of powering it.

The huge surge in predicted power consumption comes in the wake of the boom in gulf construction. But the necessary parallel boom in electricity generation has been lagging, though GCC governments have scrambled to keep up with their own ambitious development plans.

The Emirate of Ajman in the UAE announced its intention at the end of July to build the GCC's first coal-fired power plant.

Talk was also rife throughout July concerning a 1000MW coal fired plant in Duqm, on the east coast of Oman which, had it been confirmed, would have been the region's first.

The decision for a region that remains so rich in oil to turn to coal in order to generate power was questioned by some, in light of the accompanying high levels of pollution.

Dubai's forthcoming sustainable construction regulations, to be enforced as of January 1, 2009 and Abu Dhabi's Estidama program for sustainable building are both valuable indications that environmental concerns have at least made it to the agenda at the highest level.

So in light of the green construction revolution, what better way for GCC governments to demonstrate their collective commitment than by embracing renewable energy?

The current power shortage in Dubai's Business Bay is indicative of things to come, if the supply and demand gap is not plugged. With construction showing no signs of slowing, the authorities need to ensure that infrastructure is keeping pace with construction.

"Construction is moving at a very fast rate," said Sami Deek, project director at Al Shafar General Contracting, which is building 13 towers in the Bay Square area of Business Bay.

"So much so that you cannot enable the authorities or the experts to specify exactly what the power demands are and accordingly what infrastructure has to be built."

So the question is: can renewable sources provide the substantial amount of additional power that will be required down the line as a result of the construction boom?

The solar cycle

When it comes to renewables, the natural choice for the GCC is solar power. Life in the region revolves around the solar cycle. If there's one thing that is not lacking in the Middle East, it is sunshine.

It may come as some surprise therefore to learn that the GCC lags countries such as Spain and the southern states of the US, which have been much quicker to harness the power of the sun, though the Gulf is rising to the challenge.

The bidding process is currently underway to construct and run the region's first large-scale solar power plant outside of Abu Dhabi's Masdar City project. The plant will be followed by a further two plants, also under the Masdar Initiative.

"The first step had to be taken, and Abu Dhabi took that step," said Tom Koopmann, general manager at MAN Solar Millennium, one of the firms in the race for the Masdar plant.

A combination of solar power generation plus improving the efficiency of buildings can definitely fill that gap. - Tom Koopmann, general manager, MAN Solar Millennium.

"After this first plant is built, two more will follow, and people will know that it works. In my opinion it will kick-start the entire region."

Dubai, though behind its neighbour in the developmental stage, is also looking to the sun for its future energy demands. Though as Koopmann explained, the problem in Dubai may be one of space.

There are many variables to consider but in general terms, a 50MW to 100MW solar thermal plant occupies a footprint of around 2km2.

"Dubai is tendering out a feasibility study right now," said Koopmann. "They are tendering out for consultants. But you need enough space. Dubai is a bit cramped."

As Koopmann explained, regional interest currently extends beyond the borders of the UAE.

"There is interest shown in Oman, in Qatar, in Saudi, so I think the entire region is looking into it," he said. "We have had collectors running (in other areas) for 25 years. It is an existing business."

So does solar have potential to plug the gap? "A combination of solar power generation plus improving the efficiency of buildings can definitely fill that gap over the medium term," said Koopmann.

"If there is an initiative and someone says in two or three years "we need to fill that gap only with solar power," I think that would be a challenge, but if we talk in the medium term I'm quite positive."

Wind power

A second option that may not spring instantly to mind when considering the GCC climate is wind power. But there are examples of wind power being adopted, the most notable being the Bahrain World Trade Centre (BWTC).

The BWTC includes three 29m diameter wind turbines, and marks the first time that wind turbines have been included in the design and construction of a commercial building. The turbines provide up to 15% of the power needs of the building.

Though the BWTC looks stunning to the eye, questions must be asked as to just how practical wind power can be in terms of meeting the Gulf's forthcoming demands. Though a step in the right direction, 15% is not a huge amount, and could be seen as a fig leaf constructed to cover up a rather large problem.

The installation and management of the turbines at the BWTC was overseen by Danish company Norwin. In Denmark, 20% of the nation's power demands are supplied through wind turbines, one of the highest rates in the world, making the Danish company a natural choice for the Bahrain project.

"Barain's island location made it a suitable destination to construct the turbines," said Norwin managing partner Ole Sangill.

"There are particular wind conditions that link to the BWTC. There is a good wind during the day time, but you still have to have other resources to back up demand when the wind is not available."

Doubts over the full-load hours - the number of hours at which a wind farm can operate at capacity - exist in the GCC.

"A feasibility study was done in Dubai for wind, but the results were not positive," says MAN Forrostaal application engineer Rajesh Sivarajan.

"Abu Dhabi also did an investigation into wind," adds Koopmann. "It came to the conclusion that the full-load hours is not that attractive. There is one wind turbine in Sir Bani Yas Island, Abu Dhabi (the Middle East's first), which seems to be the best spot, but it is not running at 100%."

Though there is potential for renewable energy to play a key role in the future of the GCC, the pace of the construction boom means that a more immediate injection may be required.

In March the UAE government announced its intentions to create a nuclear power industry facilitated by a dedicated agency. Such an industry would involve the acquisition of enriched uranium, as opposed to building a uranium enrichment plant on UAE soil.

A city constructed around and running on renewable energy sources is an attractive vision. But with the rate of GCC construction, as infrastructure fights a losing battle to keep up with commercial and residential development, the power of nature may not be enough, unless somebody acts today.

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