Exterior of Siemens new Middle East HQ at Masdar City. Fin-like shapes keep out the sunlight
Credit: Masdar

After spending a week in Abu Dhabi for the World Future Energy Summit, Kelvin Ross reports on the talking points in the conference halls and on the brand new streets of Masdar City, the UAE’s ‘greenprint’ for sustainability.

Sun, a bit of sea and an awful lot of sand – no, not my annual holiday, but a working trip to Abu Dhabi for the World Future Energy Summit (WFES).

Now in its seventh year, WFES is the energy pow-wow held anually as the centrepiece of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW). The great and the good from the energy world turn up, deals are done, technology showcased and the temperature of the renewable energy world is taken.

There was a lot of optimism in and around the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre which housed WFES… but then there would be: with Masdar City – Abu Dhabi’s sustainable poster city for clean technology – just a hop and a skip down the road, you will not find many people telling you that the renewables bubble has burst.

A particular focus of ADSW was Africa, highlighted by two key announcements made by the Abu Dhabi-headquartered International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Firstly, IRENA revealed that 19 countries had signed up to an action plan it had drawn up to create an Africa Clean Energy Corridor. The corridor is designed to boost the deployment of renewable energy and help meet Africa’s rising energy demand with clean power from renewable sources such as hydro, geothermal, biomass, wind and solar.

K. Ross
Attendees admire Masdar’s model exhibit at WFES
Credit: K. Ross

IRENA’s director-general Adnan Z. Amin said the corridor would “provide the continent with the opportunity to leapfrog into a sustainable energy future”.

A day later, IRENA held a press conference to announce that, in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD), it was giving loans of $41 million to renewable energy projects in six developing countries, with half of them in Africa.

It is the first wave of concessional loans handed out by the IRENA/ADFD partnership and the winning projects are in Ecuador, Mali, the Maldives, Mauritania, Samoa and Sierra Leone, and involve hydro, wind, solar and biomass technology. Amin said the projects were all “shovel-ready to go” and would “bring power to isolated off-grid populations, in some cases for the first time”

He added: “Financing is one of the key issues renewable energy is facing, particularly in the developing world,” and confirmed that IRENA and the ADFD had teamed up to “de-risk investments in promising renewable projects”. Amin went on to say that the success of the first round of loans debunked “one of the myths about renewable energy projects – that there are not enough of them out there”.

“There is a large pipeline of renewable energy projects that are viable today,” he said, explaining that the six projects that won funding were chosen from a list of 80 worth more than $800 million. “And we are expecting the volume for the next cycle of financing to be substantially higher” he added.

Personal Rapid Transport
One of Masdar City’s Personal Rapid Transport cars, driverless and running on solar-powered lithium batteries

Amin said that there was “tremendous growth in renewable energy investment in the GCC”, adding that the “leader in the process is the UAE.” Indeed, he said the establishment of Masdar in Abu Dhabi had been “the trigger for [renewables] awareness in the region”.

“Almost every country in the region is now setting renewable energy targets… and we are seeing more and more ambitious projects for the future.”

All of which is true, but if the number of potential projects is growing, what is falling is the global level of renewable investment. Just ahead of ADSW, Bloomberg New Energy Finance published data revealing that global investment in clean energy declined last year, continuing a fall started in 2012. Figures showed that last year the total investment was $254 billion, down from $288.9 billion in 2012 and significantly less than the record sum of $317.9 billion seen in 2011.

“That is disappointing,” said Amin, but he added that it was “understandable” given the recession in so many areas which had previously been leaders in investment, such as Europe. However he added that the consolidation that has swept across many parts of the sector would result in “the emergence of a much leaner, cost-competitive industry”.

African opportunities

The focus on Africa continued at the WFES opening ceremony, when Masdar chief executive Dr. Sultan Al Jabar was joined on the stage by the presidents of Senegal and Sierra Leone and the prime minister of Ethiopia.

Dr. Al Jabar said that “with six of the ten fastest-growing economies of the past decade located in sub-Saharan Africa, the development opportunities in this region are tremendous”.

Ethiopia’s prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn told the audience that “Africa is rising. Even though Africa contributes negligible emissions compared to the rest of the world, we have opted for a green, climate-friendly vision for our future”. And Sierra Leone president Ernest Bai Koroma said “Africa is going to be the place where clean energy technologies are going to scale and encourage sustainable development”.

Africa again featured heavily once the conference programme kicked off. At a debate on wind energy, a panel of wind sector players – including Siemens, Alstom, Masdar, and Acciona – picked out South Africa as the go-to destination for wind business in 2014.

Rooftop solar at Masdar City
Rooftop solar at Masdar City

“South Africa is the most promising market,” said Carmen Becerril, chief international officer at Spanish wind power company Acciona. She said Acciona was looking to Africa for fresh business as Europe “will be in a very flat position for 2014”.

Markus Tacke, chief executive of Siemens’ wind division, agreed 2014 “will be a challenging year”, saying that the prospects in offshore wind were much better than those onshore. He said onshore was a “flat market”, with the Middle East and North Africa remaining the region “we have hope in”.

The most upbeat of the panellists was Masdar’s clean energy director Bader Al Lamki, who said 2013 had been “exceptional” for Masdar. He said the highlight was the opening of London Array, the biggest offshore wind farm in the world, which came on line last summer off the east coast on England.

Masdar, alongside E.ON and Dong Energy, is the developer of the 175-turbine, 630 MW site. Al Lamki said that on the back of large projects such as London Array to smaller schemes like one in the Seychelles, he said Masdar was looking to 2014 with optimism. “Not blind optimism but founded optimism: wind has shown its resilience in terms of being able to compete with other forms of energy.”

Concourse space at Masdar City<br>Credit all: K. Ross
Concourse space at Masdar City
Credit all: K. Ross

He said there was much for the sector to be positive about going into the new year, highlighting Jordan’s first wind park, regulatory stability in the UK, a growing sector in France and the “huge market” in Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

On the domestic front, Masdar is also making slow but steady progress with the development of the $16 million sustainable flagship Masdar City.

With work starting in 2008, the city is designed to be a blueprint – or greenprint – for sustainable living and working. Much is already built and a whole lot more is under construction, with some major global names moving in to the new business space.

During ADSW, Siemens opened its new Middle East headquarters, dubbing it an “important milestone in the company’s history”. Designed by architects Sheppard Robson International, the building is said to be one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the region, reducing energy consumption by almost 50 per cent compared to conventional buildings of the same size.

Masdar’s Dr. Al Jaber said Siemens’ presence “marks a significant step forward in Masdar City’s growth as a leading global model of sustainable design and modern urban planning”.

Exterior of Masdar City apartments
Exterior of Masdar City apartments

Other Masdar City business residents include GE, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and IRENA, and they will be joined soon by French engineering company Schneider Electric.

Wandering around the shaded streets of Masdar City, you notice a number of rooftop solar installations, while just outside the current crop of buildings lies a 10 MW solar plant.

The prospects for the solar power industry were debated back in the WFES conference hall, where Michael Geyer, business development boss at Spain’s Abengoa Solar, said the global market was “entering a new technology generation and a new market generation”.

Geyer said that both solar PV and CSP could look forward to a bright future – not least because more investors had faith in the sector. “The money is out there. We have gained the confidence of investors and lenders – they are confident in the technology.”

Andreas Heidelberg, head of technology at Masdar PV, said the reaching of grid parity in a number of regions in 2013 was a defining moment for solar, but he added that the market was still being hindered by uncertainty from policy makers. “There is no stability in policies and this is leading to oversupply and a strong decline in prices. For 2014, I see that overcapacity will still persist but we are getting to a price level where it won’t decline – the market will stabilize”.

Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, chief executive of Masdar, gave the keynote address at the opening ceremony of the WFES in Abu Dhabi
Credit: Masdar

Matt Campbell, senior director at SunPower Corp in the US, agreed that the reaching of grid parity “was a milestone in 2013” and he predicted that 2014 would see “a lot of new countries responding to the changes in solar PV”.

Sam Sakir, chief executive of Areva Solar in France, echoed Heidelberg that what was needed to keep momentum in the market was a shift in policy making. “Policy in various regions needs to be forward thinking. With policy comes investment and from there you have the cut and paste effect: what is successful for one project is transferred to another.”

At another WFES debate on solar, the focus of geographical attention was on the Middle East, where, according to Tarek El Sayed, vice-president of Lebanon’s Booz & Company, “solar is not theory anymore – projects are there and momentum is building”. Delegates heard that the UAE dominates the MENA region for solar, with 140 MW currently operational from 58 projects, including the region’s 100 MW solar poster child, Shams 1, which went operational last year.

Growing organically

With the arrival in Masdar City of Siemens, GE, Mitsubishi and Schneider Electric, Masdar is upbeat on the future. “As the city grows organically we think other people will want to be a part of it,” says Steve Severance, Masdar’s head of Program Management and Investments.

He adds that the city is testimony to Abu Dhabi’s bid to be more than just one of the world’s biggest reserves of oil and gas. “To become a leader in sustainability and renewables is a much more difficult proposition.

“You look at all the countries around the world that have oil or that make money by taking things out of the ground, the first thing they do is put the money in a bank account, count it and say thank you. In Abu Dhabi they have really reinvested in its economy and its population.”

Severance says that Masdar City “is a demonstration that in this environment you can live in a way that uses significantly less resources”.

He says Abu Dhabi realises that its “resources are not infinite, global warming is a problem… and they understand that after oil was discovered, the Gulf states used significantly more energy per person than anywhere else”.

“Masdar is a demonstration that even in a difficult environment, you can figure out ways to live that use less energy and also that sustainability makes your life better.”

ABB wins Zayed Prize

Swiss company ABB won the Zayad Future Energy Prize for large corporations in Abu Dhabi.

ABB became the sixth winner of the prize, beating fellow finalists GE and US retail giant Walmart.

The prize was accepted by ABB chief executive Ulrich Spiesshofer, who has been in the role only since September last year.

At a press conference after the ceremony, Spiesshofer said that “there is a correlation in a company between doing well and doing good”.

He added that he believed that “solar in 2030 will have the same relevance in the global energy mix as nuclear.”

After turbulent times of rising and falling prices and consolidation, he added that “solar will find its way back into a prospering business”.

The $4 million Zayed Future Energy Prize, established by the UAE government, is split into five categories and is awarded to companies, organizations, schools and individuals that have made significant contributions to the future of renewable energy and sustainability.

The other winners were India’s Abellon CleanEnergy in the SME category, Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems as NGO, Wang Chuanfu won the lifetime achievement award and five high schools from around the world took prizes in the Global High Schools category.

Wang Chuanfu is founder and president of Chinese battery maker BYD.

Dr. Al Jaber, director general of the prize, said: “The collective efforts of our winners and finalists are positively impacting communities around the world. Today, alumni of the prize are championing the deployment of renewable energy.”

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