HomeDecentralized EnergyEquipment & TechnologyAdvancing solar technology in the Middle East

Advancing solar technology in the Middle East

Recently launched in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the Masdar Solar Hub is a state-of-the artà‚ solar testing and R&D hub for photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal technology, and the first facility of its kind in the region.

The Solar Hub will offer testing, evaluation and certification of solar technologies and systems, Masdar says, as well as consulting and information services. It is a key addition to Masdar’s growing solar portfolio, which includes the world’s largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant, the 100 MW Shams 1 in Abu Dhabi; Mauritania’s first utility-scale PV plant, at 15 MW; a microgrid-connected PV plant on the Tongan island of Vava’u; and a 500 kW PV plant on Murawah Island off the UAE coast. Torresol Energy, Masdar’s joint venture with Spanish engineering and construction firm Sener, has resulted in three CSP plants in Spain: the 20 MW Gemasolar plant and Valle 1 and 2, each 50 MW.

Alexander Ritschel, senior manager at Masdar’s Special Projects project management and consulting arm, plays a key role in managing the Solar Hub project. PEi spoke with him about the facility, why it was necessary, and what it aims to accomplish.

The facility

The Solar Hub is made up of three main facilities: a photovoltaic test centre, which offers performance, reliability and durability testing for PV modules, coatings and related equipment; a concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) test centre, which is a joint initiative with Spain’s Instituto de Sistemas Fotovoltaicos de Concentraciàƒ³n (ISFOC) and offers testing of CPV systems under Abu Dhabi’s environmental conditions; and the research, development and demonstration-focused Masdar Institute Solar Platform (MISP), which will explore solar thermal technologies such as CSP and thermal energy storage.

Solar radiation typically exceeds 6 kWh/m<sup>2</sup> per day in the Middle East
Solar radiation typically exceeds 6 kWh/m2 per day in the Middle East
Credit: Masdar

The Hub’s planned activities include long-term outdoor exposure testing of PV and CPV modules and CSP components; testing of solar thermal equipment and solar receivers; indoor testing of PV modules, and testing of thermal energy storage systems. Testing facilities are also planned for battery, flywheel and other types of energy storage solutions.

The MISP is built around a 100 kWth solar thermal plant, which features a beam down concentrating tower and its solar field, a hot-oil loop and thermal energy storage system, a solar irradiometer platform, a compact linear Fresnel reflector and other solar thermal systems connected to a double effect absorption chiller.

The beam down concentrating tower is “a pretty unique thing – it’s not the only one in the world, but for sure there are not more than 10 globally,” Ritschel says. The 20-metre high tower is surrounded by a parabolic field of 22 heliostat mirrors in three concentric rings, which adjust their angle to track the sun as it moves across the sky, and direct the reflected light at the tower. Lining the tower is a 45-mirror array which redirects the light from the heliostats toward a receiver at the tower’s base. The installation can be used to test “reflectors, absorber tubes, heat transfer fluids – a variety of components used in the CSP industry,” says Ritschel.

“In conventional CSP,” he continues, “the towers have the concentration to the top. This is maybe good for a commercial facility, but for research it’s not useful because how do you experiment always on top of the tower? Having the beam reaching the ground offers the flexibility to constantly modify and test.” At the moment the tower is used for thermal energy storage testing in collaboration with Norway’s New Energy Storage (NEST), which has developed a storage system based on a concrete material with special thermal properties, called HeatCrete. “We put a concrete block under the beam, heat it up, and run charging/discharging experiments,” Ritschel says, then “analyze the process parameters, and maybe change to another thermal storage system afterwards.” NEST hopes that the two-year, 1 MWth demonstration project, which uses oil heated to 400oC as a transfer fluid to move the solar heat to the HeatCrete, will lead to commercialization of the technology as early as 2016.

Masdar City, with solar panels
Masdar City, with solar panels
Credit: Kelvin Ross

Why was it needed?

When solar energy players think of the Middle East, they think first of its solar resource. In the UAE, the direct normal irradiance (DNI) has been estimated at between 1600 and 2000 kWh/m2 per year, with the typical daily average solar radiation exceeding 6 kWh/m2 and skies that are 80-90 per cent clear throughout the year.

However, this resource is coupled with a harsh environment that includes temperatures of up to 45oC (and higher in a built environment that features asphalt and concrete structures), as well as blowing sand and dust storms. While the UAE is committed to diversifying its energy portfolio, with targets such as Abu Dhabi’s aim to generate 7 per cent of its power from renewable sources by 2020 and Dubai’s target of 5 per cent solar generation by 2030, many solar technologies currently on the market were designed in Europe or North America, where conditions on the ground are significantly different.

When asked whether adapting solar technologies to work in the UAE’s climatic conditions was the main driver for the establishment of the Solar Hub, Ritschel said: “I would not have phrased it in such a way. I would not agree to the statement that solar technologies as they are sold today are not suitable for the region. You can buy a solar panel and install it in Abu Dhabi or Dubai and it will work very nicely.” He noted that Masdar City’s electricity needs are supplied by a 10 MW solar power plant, which produces excess power that is fed to the public grid, as well as a building-mounted solar array.

“However,” he continued, “there is some truth” in the statement. Dust and sand, he said, “are not conducive to the technology, and can cause penalties”, while “the solutions that work for Germany, Japan or the US may not work the same way in the UAE”. High ambient temperatures reduce solar panels’ conversion efficiency, and the accumulation of sand and dust atop a panel reduces the amount of light that hits it. “There is indeed a need to study these effects and to come up with solutions that are cost-effective to deal with them,” he said, although “these solutions are maybe some way out.”

Plans for the Solar Hub include working with PV panel manufacturers to develop new solutions, such as coating the panels with dust repellent, cleaning technologies or a combination of the two. “Coating may not totally obviate the need for cleaning,” Ritschel noted, but it “may make it less frequent. A combination of coatings, advanced cleaning systems and different cleaning procedures and timings – time of day, etc – has some effect.”


The Solar Hub's photovoltaic test centre
The Solar Hub’s photovoltaic test centre
Credit: Masdar

“Another important factor is the heat,” he added, “and also high humidity, another climatic factor often causing corrosion unless you protect [the solar installation].”

However, he emphasized that “I would not want to say that, because of all these environmental conditions, solar PV is not suitable; that would too dramatic. All of these negative side effects are overcompensated by the Middle East’s very high irradiance, so this makes it possible to come up to a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of below $0.06/kWh, which is phenomenal. But it can be even better if some targeted solutions can be developed to deal with these factors – high ambient temperatures, humidity, soiling, dust, sand – and then we can improve on the current state of the art.”

Given solar power’s increased competitiveness with fossil fuels, Ritschel says the main barriers left to widespread adoption in the Middle East have to do with project development. “I would not say that schemes like feed-in tariffs are needed,” he says, “because already just the cost is good. But there are still so many procedural things that need to be addressed: how to deal with utilities to get a permit, how to get grid interconnection – these are elements that can delay projects or make them expensive and difficult. These elements should be addressed now by utilities and governments. In Dubai, for example, now there is a kind of feed-in tariff or net metering, so that could also help.

“If you look into the details you will see that these mechanisms are now being introduced, so I think it will most likely be a success,” he concludes.

Aims of the project

The facilities that make up the Solar Hub have been established for several years, Ritschel said, but “it was only recently – at the beginning of 2015 – that we had the idea to consolidate the existing pieces in terms of infrastructure and expertise into an umbrella: a solar hub. Also to integrate those activities into a new hub, and then to expand it.”

The beam down concentrating tower
The beam down concentrating tower
Credit: Masdar

Drivers for the project included the falling costs of both PV panels and the production of solar power; the lack of operational solar power installations in the UAE despite the significant solar resource; and the way solar installations function under the Emirate’s climatic conditions. Ritschel explained that current low costs “create a huge opportunity for solar power toà‚ develop on a significant scale in the UAE and other countries. So this also triggered us to develop an infrastructure at Masdar that facilitates this market deployment and development.

“Right now we have very, very little solar energy in the UAE,” he noted, “so all of the new projects will introduce technologies to the country that are not perfectly known, or at least there is no reference for them in the country. So the facility will help to build confidence in those technologies, and by building confidence we hope it will lower the barriers to introducing them, and lower associated costs.

“If you introduce a new technology, then you should showcase how it works,” he added, “and that’s what we wish to do, in a manner whereby experts are monitoring and analyzing it.” Work at the Solar Hub is planned to include collaboration with German testing, inspection and certification firm TàƒÅ“V, with the testing equipment selected jointly and the testing and analysis procedures developed with TàƒÅ“V Rhineland.

Ultimately, the Hub will offer information to UAE utilities, Ritschel said, so that “before they grant a permit to build, say, a 100 MW plant with a particular solar module, they can come to us to see if we’ve tested it. On the other side, we can also give information to other end users – to a commercial-sector company that wishes to install, for example, a rooftop solar facility. We can advise them how to do this.”

The Hub also aims to work with solar manufacturers to install and compare products to determine which versions work best under the UAE’s climatic conditions, he noted, as well as offering performance guarantees for their products, which can lead to lower insurance premiums and significant cost savings.

“All this, we hope, will help accelerate the deployment of solar technologies in the region while reducing uncertainty and risk,” he added.

Finally, the Solar Hub is planned to take an educational role, “to make the population more aware of the opportunities,” Ritschel said. Students at the Masdar Institute will have the opportunity to work with the latest technologies at the R&D facility so that its graduates are up to date with developments in the industry.

“We hope it will be a facility that is not only dedicated to the testing of products, but will also have a research perspective, an educational role and a role in facilitating deployment,” Ritschel said, “and maybe even facilitating startup companies in the UAE.”