Coming hot on the heels of COP21, Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week dissected the agreements made in Paris and pinpointed the growth areas for renewable energy. Kelvin Ross spent a week in the emirate to hear the debates and talk to key clean energy players

The rise of renewables in the global energy mix has run in parallel with the growth of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

The event welcomed 11,000 attendees from 84 countries to its inaugural conferences and exhibition in 2008. Last month, some 33,000 people from 170 countries arrived in the United Arab Emirates for the ninth session of ADSW, including energy representatives from almost every country represented at the COP21 climate talks, which had concluded with much fanfare in December.

Indeed, the gathering in the UAE – which incorporates the World Future Energy Summit – was the first high-level clean energy meeting since COP21, and the deal struck in Paris between 188 countries was repeatedly praised.

“COP21 recreated global momentum in climate change that we had not seen for a decade,” said Adnan Amin, director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

“The determination from so many actors from so many countries was unprecedented. The political signal from Paris is transformational – it has given me tremendous cause for optimism. Paris is going to redefine the way we live our future.”

Speaking at a FT Question Time debate on the first day of the sustainability week, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said that Paris was a “multi-decade agreement” and would mean “doing an honest report card every five years”.

“We are going to have to be transparent,” she said, “but that transparency gives us integrity”. She said that the strength of the 188 climate change plans agreed in Paris was that each country’s commitment “is in their own national interest”.

Joining Figueres on the panel was Kyung-Ah Park, head of Goldman Sachs’ Environmental Markets Group, who said that COP21 is “an incredible milestone” but warned that “capital does not move on political will”.

Instead, she said, what is needed is firm political action and, as an example, said that in the wake of COP21, US solar stocks rose by 5 per cent. However, when an extension for US tax credits was agreed, those same stocks “popped by 30 per cent”.

The next day at the opening ceremony of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), the UAE’s Special Envoy for Energy and Climate Change, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, sparked applause from the 3700-strong audience when he said: “We have been saying for decades that: we can, we should, we will. Last month in Paris: we did.”

Adnan Amin

Credit: Kelvin Ross

Laurent Fabius, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that “political and technological maturity” were the reasons for success in Paris, and went on to pick out one particular technology that he stressed must be brought into play: “The rapid deployment of carbon capture and storage will be necessary on a massive scale to hold global warming.”

He added that “the costs of clean technology will come down, but investment must go up”.

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said that during COP21 “the sustainability agenda captured the attention of the world”.

He added that the Paris agreement had shown that “we can no longer burn our way to prosperity” and that “renewable energy will help provide the solutions to climate change and to poverty”.

A greenprint for cities

At the forefront of ADSW is Masdar, the Abu Dhabi-headquartered group which has, in a relatively short time, become a major player in the sustainable energy arena.

I visited the ever-developing Masdar City and was given a tour by the city’s director, Anthony Mallows, who described the ethos behind the development.

“Our cities in the future should be developed with a very low or neutral carbon footprint. If we are going to transform the global economy and how we live on the planet, we have to learn how to do more with less natural resources and how to optimize renewable resources.”

He calls Masdar “a microcosm of how cities will be built. We built it small enough to achieve results in the short term but large enough to have all the complexity of urban systems.”

Standing on about 600 hectares, when fully built the city is intended to have around 50,000 people working in it and some 45,000 residents.

“It’s designed to be a greenprint for how cities of the future can be built,” says Mallows. “It’s not the only way – its’s the way we are doing it here – and we feel if you can do it in a hot, dry desert environment then it’s a lot easier to use energy and resources in climates that are less hostile to human habitation.”

When Masdar City was launched in 2005, the concept was to build it very fast with a lot of government support. The financial crisis changed that plan and it is now developed with third party investors, which, says Mallows, “has changed the dynamic”.

The beam-down concentrator

Credit: Masdar

By 2030, the city will comprise eight neighbourhoods – so far only the first is built with work on the second due to start in a couple of months.

So who works in Masdar City? “We are working at a number of levels on who comes here,” says Mallows. “The first level goes to the idea of community.”

The ‘big cube’ energy storage system from Norway’s NEST

Credit: Kelvin Ross

He says Masdar was created as a free zone and an investment zone and “the first community of people who are coming here are in the free zone. There are over 350 companies now in the free zone, from startups who rent a hot desk to companies like Siemens.”

Research is a cornerstone of Masdar’s work on clean energy and the company showed me its concentrated solar power storage system, which it calls a “beam-down concentrator”.

The system reflects sunlight twice, once from 33 heliostats over 220 square metres to a 20-metre high tower, and once again from the tower down to a one-metre square collection platform on the ground, where intense heat is stored.

Masdar is one of the drivers behind Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week

Credit: Kelvin Ross

The goal is to use that heat to generate steam to turn a turbine and to also store it in “a big cube”, a storage method developed by Norwegian solar storage firm NEST. Masdar claims that the beam-down concentrator is one of only three in the world and the only one being deployed for research activities. It is also the first high temperature thermal energy storage system built in the Middle East.

Potential and barriers

In the conference rooms of the World Future Energy Summit, the potential of renewables across the globe was highlighted, as were the barriers to development.

India was repeatedly hailed as the world’s hot spot for future renewable development.

“The potential of India is huge – the number of gigawatts is mind-boggling,” said Amit De, senior strategist at Canada-headquartered solar developer SkyPower Global.

De said that SkyPower has committed to build 18 GW of solar projects in India by 2022.

“We see India as a very competitive market but it has fantastic opportunities. There are challenges in terms of the grid, some states are not so easy to do business in, and it would be nice if regulation was more streamlined, but renewables will change the face of power generation in India.”

Pranav Mehta, chairman of the National Solar Energy Federation of India, said there was “exponential growth in India” for renewables, and added that the growth would be built on “four pillars”.

“Firstly, volume – if the volume is there the business will come; second, spread – spreading renewables throughout the country is needed; third is technology and fourth is infrastructure.”

He said India had gone from zero renewables to 5000 MW in just a few years and “we are going to have 20 times as much”.

Ashish Sethia of Bloomberg New Energy Finance said that for India to fulfil its renewable energy targets, $20 billion of capital will need to come into the market each year.

“Last year it was $11 billion, so we need to double that number.”

He added that India was “the only major economy in the world that has power market growth of between 4 and 5 per cent”. Not even China, he said, could compete with that.

Vikas Dawra, managing director of Yes Bank, India’s fifth largest private sector bank, stressed the urgency of a renewables rollout: “One third of Indians don’t have access to the grid – that’s 330 million people.”

Meanwhile a panel of renewable experts at another session were asked which country in the Middle East and North Africa has the greatest and most realistic solar potential in the next five years.

The resounding answer was Saudi Arabia.

Imtiaz Mahtab of the Middle East Solar Industry Association said that “Saudi will be the icing on the cake” for the MENA region’s renewable ambitions, while Mohammed Atif of DNV-GL Energy told the audience that there had been “a sea change” in Saudi Arabia over plans for solar projects. While the prospects may not be “visible to the public… much progress is going on within Saudi companies, and that is a good sign. I can see Saudi expanding significantly.”

He said he had “high hopes” for the kingdom and added that the wider MENA region is “up for very exciting times. We are involved in the policy and for us, we can see that the solar boom is really beginning to take off in the whole region – we are struggling to keep up.”

He cited Kuwait as another growth area, where the government has set a target of generating 20 per cent of its electricity from renewables.

Amer M Al Swaha of cleantech advisory Apricum said that Saudi’s focus on solar was driven by its need to wean itself off oil for energy production. “Oil is used to generate 60 per cent of electricity in Saudi.”

He said that the kingdom has set a target to save 1.5 million barrels of oil by switching to solar generation, and stressed that “if we leave things as they are, we will use all the oil that we generate and there will be nothing left to export”.

Nour Mousa, chief executive of Saudi Arabia-based investment and EPC company Desert Technologies, singled out Egypt as another growth area in the MENA region.

“Egypt is moving at a fast pace – we are very bullish on its market.”

Phenomenal change

The impact of renewables on the global energy landscape was stressed by the executive director of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Speaking to Power Engineering International on the last day of the World Future Energy Summit, Adnan Z Amin said that “the whole scenario of the energy future has evolved radically”.

He said that the renewables technology is already mature for most of the initiatives needed to apply the agreements made at COP21 in Paris last month, but added that “if we are going to hit the target we are not going to do it without huge investment in renewables”.

“The rate of change has been phenomenal but the rate of growth has been too. We are going to see a lot of infrastructure decisions in the next few years that are going to define the energy sector of the future.”

He said that China and India “have rates of deployment that have never been seen anywhere else – they are huge markets. They are going to drive innovation and cost reduction even further.”

And switching continents, he believes Africa “has a unique opportunity to dramatically change its energy future. Africa is rich in terms of the technology potential of renewables.”

However, he added that the barriers to a swift African renewables rollout was “an understanding of the right policy and regulatory framework” and also finance: “We know that there is a lot of liquidity in the financial system. The money is not moving because we do not have the right de-risking systems.”

He also spotlighted the economic benefits of embracing renewables. “The thing that excites politicians is something that creates youth employment, and that is addressed by a renewables strategy.”

Off Grid Electric scoops Zayed Future Energy Prize

A solar company won the prestigious Zayed Future Energy Prize for its work in bringing electricity to power-starved areas of Tanzania.

Off Grid Electric (OGE) scooped the prize in the small-to-medium sized enterprise category at the awards ceremony during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

Founded in 2011 by three college friends, the company provides a solar kit to Tanzanian homes that previously relied on kerosene lamps for lighting.

With OGE, they pre-pay for electricity via mobile phone at the beginning of each month and, in return, receive a solar panel, LED lights, and a Li-ion battery, which connects to the panel via a DC cable to allow night-time use.

Speaking to Power Engineering International after receiving the award, chief executive and co-founder Xavier Helgesen said that tackling the reliance on kerosene was vital for Tanzania, where 85 per cent of its 50 million people do not have access to electricity. “Tanzania basically spends the whole proceeds of its tourism industry on buying kerosene,” he said, adding that the negative health effects of people spending every evening in a room with a kerosene lamp “is like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day”.

Helgesen said that “the number one thing that keeps solar from taking off in Africa is that people are expected to pay for a lifetime’s energy up front”.

He added that the “overwhelming adoption of solar in Africa in the future is going to be in small chunks” in the pay-as-you-go scheme utilized by OGE and other companies using a similar business model.

The Zayed Future Energy Prize comes with a $1.5 million winner’s cheque, and Helgesen said he plans to use the money to “grow the salesforce into the thousands” from the existing 1000, many of whom come from local universities.

“That gives them local ownership,” said OGE’s vice-president of business development Graham Smith. “That’s vital because the things that we are trying to solve are important to them.”

Winning the prize comes just a month after the company secured $25 million in funding from private investors who were attracted by the concept of micro-solar leasing.