Oil producers aim to turn the desert sunshine into a new export: solar energy. By Gordon Platt
When the oil runs out, the sun will still be shining and the Middle East may be the world's biggest exporter of solar energy. Ironically, the oilexporting nations of the Gulf are taking the lead in developing "green" technologies and alternative energy sources that will one day replace fossil fuels.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, was chosen last year to be the headquarters of the newly formed International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena). Some 500 delegates from Irena's 120 member states met in Abu Dhabi in January to decide on the agency's tasks and projects for 2010. One of Irena's main activities will be the collection, generation and sharing of knowledge about renewable energy.
Irena, the first international agency to be based in a developing country, will create an international network of experts and will advise members on the financing of renewable energy projects. It also will build a comprehensive global database of policies to promote renewable energy.
The agency will be housed in Masdar City, a new, $22 billion city, under construction near Abu Dhabi International Airport, that will be powered entirely by renewable energy. Masdar City aims to become the Silicon Valley for clean, green and alternative energy. More than 1,500 companies from around the world will locate there to fund, research, develop and implement new and sustainable technologies.
The carbon-neutral, zero-waste city, designed by UK-based architectural firm Foster & Partners, will include the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The institute, which is modeled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, enrolled 90 students from 22 countries in September 2009.
Masdar, also known as Abu Dhabi Future Energy, is a subsidiary of Mubadala Development, the investment vehicle of the Abu Dhabi government. "The Masdar Initiative is a continuation and evolution of Abu Dhabi's five decades of leadership as a global energy provider," says Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Masdar. The city will also demonstrate the practical viability and appeal of living in an alternative-energy environment, he says in a statement on the company's website.
Abu Dhabi has committed $14 billion to the project, with another $8 billion expected to come from outside investors. The Masdar Clean Tech Fund closed its first round of financing in February after raising $265 million. The fund is co-managed by Masdar Venture Capital and DB Climate Change Advisors, part of Deutsche Bank's asset management business. Credit Suisse and Siemens were among the investors. The fund will support water and waste-management projects.
No automobiles will be allowed within Masdar City's walls. A solar-powered water desalination plant will provide water for the city's population, which could reach 50,000.
Meanwhile, neighboring Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in joining Irena and has begun work on its first solar-powered desalination plant to serve 100,000 people in Al Khafji, which is located near the border with Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia will emerge as a major exporter of solar energy, which could reach the current level of the kingdom's oil exports, according to US energy secretary Steven Chu. "The kingdom's drive to invest a portion of its oil revenue on scientific and technical research will enable it to strengthen diversification of energy sources and promote renewable energy programs," Chu said following a lecture in February at the Riyadh office of the International Energy Forum.
Khaled Al-Nabulsi, a professor at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, says that studies have proved that Saudi Arabia could become the largest exporter of solar energy in the world. The country has the capability to produce large amounts of solar energy due to its great expanse of open areas exposed to direct sunlight, he says. …