Exclusive Interview

The Middle East’s CO2 emissions posted the fastest growth rate of any other region in 2014. With environmental regulations getting ever more stringent, now’s the time to act.

The Paris Climate Talks that took place between November 30 and December 11, 2015 brought climate change back into the spotlight, and with it, the role of renewable energy in tackling the problem. The International Renewable Energy Agency suggests that doubling the global share of renewable energy by 2030 would provide half the emission reductions needed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, while energy efficiency measures could provide the rest.

Generating power and electricity in a more environmentally efficient and sustainable manner is increasingly gaining traction in countries in the Middle East. Companies like Masdar, a pioneer in the field, and frontrunner in the race to become a regional powerhouse in renewables, are constantly investing in new projects and technologies that both challenge and improve commercial energy production.

 

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The UAE government has been actively seeking to promote the use of greener energy across the country, and Dr Nawal Al Hosany, director of sustainability at Masdar, firmly believes that renewable energy will continue to grow in prominence in the region.

“The issue of climate change and rising global temperatures is perhaps more salient here in the Middle East than anywhere else on the planet. For many years, climate action was synonymous with sacrifice. It was a matter of what countries and individuals would have to “give up” to reduce emissions and save the planet.”

She added: “Now, thanks in part to the growing business case for renewable energy and its centrality in the climate solution, climate action is increasingly being seen as a means to grow, stimulate the economy and improve livelihoods.

One of the factors to consider when talking about renewable energy, Hosany suggests, is the falling cost of technology used to generate cleaner energy.

“Falling technology costs are making the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy cost-neutral, while also creating jobs, boosting GDP growth, driving business and reducing emissions,” she said.

 

The role of sustainability in cleaner energy development is rapidly growing, but so are the challenges surrounding it, as Hosany explains.

“The energy choices we make in the next few years will determine the nature of the climate we will experience in our lifetime, and the kind of world we will leave for our children and future generations. Masdar is a reflection of the UAE leadership’s awareness that yesterday’s models cannot and will not provide a sustainable future for the people of the UAE. Since 2006, the company has invested over $1.7bn and already delivered on 1GW of renewable power projects around the world.”

As someone who’s spent decades in the field, Hosany admits that lack of awareness on sustainability can sometimes act as a barrier, but where there’s a challenge, there’s an opportunity and that’s exactly the kind of approach that Masdar’s been taking over the years.

“There is a need to raise awareness on adopting and incorporating basic sustainability practices across the region and beyond – from domestic to corporate adoption. Sustainability can be incorporated in organisations throughout the entire supply chain; it also adds significant cost savings through resource management,” Mr Hosany says.

 

Since its inception in 2006, Masdar has grown into a multi-million dollar company and a worldwide recognised brand.

It currently owns an impressive 1.5GW of renewable power projects in various global locations, both in operation and under development. Its biggest international investment at present includes the world’s largest offshore wind farm, the 630MW London Array in the Thames Estuary, UK. The company also owns 35% share in the planned Dudgeon offshore wind farm in Britain, which is being developed with its Norwegian partners Statoil and Statkraft.

The Abu Dhabi based company recently told local media it aims to double its projects portfolio in the next ten years. In the Middle East, one of its key investments is the Tafila Wind Farm in Jordan, the first utility-scale wind farm commissioned in the region. The $238 million project is capable of producing 117MW of electricity, delivering 400GWh of electricity annually and displacing 235,000 tonnes of CO₂ emissions. With Morocco vowing to have 52% of its energy come from renewables by 2030, the market will be a key focus for the UAE’s flagship developer.

 

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The company also plans to produce a staggering 1,500 m3/day of potable water over the next 15 months through its desalination programme in Ghantoot, Abu Dhabi, by using four specially designed technologies from four different companies. Ultimately, it aims for the large-scale deployment and implementation of one or more of these energy-efficient desalination technologies in the UAE and potentially across the wider Middle East and North Africa region, as well as internationally.

Another of its ground-breaking projects, the 100MW Shams 1 facility in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, which is also the largest concentrated solar power plant of its kind, can reduce CO₂ emission by up to 175,000 tonnes annually. Through GE’s Ecomagination 2020 Partnership, Masdar is working on implementing the first complete energy-neutral wastewater treatment process in the region.

The company has also increased its collaboration with local and international partners and foreign investment banks offering cash for green energy projects. In 2013, it signed a deal with the UK’s Green Investment Bank, while its Pacific Partnership Fund, a $50 million initiative, continues to deliver grant-funded renewable energy projects across four nations in the Pacific island.

Masdar, which started as a $15 billion initiative to diversify Abu Dhabi’s energy mix, today owns a designated capital investment fund for new investments and acquisitions abroad. It typically targets $15 million to $50 million in private equity for companies whose commercial revenue is at least $10 million. Geographically, its focus is mainly on mature markets like Europe and North America, but stretches far beyond to locations as remote as the Seashells and Fiji islands.

In the meantime, one of its pivotal projects, Masdar City – an eco-friendly urban development in the eastern parts of Abu Dhabi, is attracting foreign investment in the UAE and a growing number of private sector players. Slated to be the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste, car-free city, Masdar City is fast becoming a growing business haven for innovative tech start-ups, urban development planners, sustainability entrepreneurs and energy saving products and service providers.

 

Though in its early stages and the first of its eight neighbourhoods still under development, multinationals like Siemens have already made the CIty home to its Middle East operations. The structure it inhabits is the first LEED Platinum building to open in Abu Dhabi, while its “box-within-a-box” design contributes to an energy savings of about 63% compared to conventional office buildings in the emirate. Siemens also claims a 52% water savings for the building.

Investment in research and development is absolutely essential in all fields, and arguably, even more so in renewables. As one of the region’s primary advocate on new energy economy, Masdar’s approach on R&D appears to be both integrated and commercially driven. It combines higher education with scientific research, while also working to achieve collaboration with the private sector. At the core of Masdar City is the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology (MI) – an independent, research-driven university dedicated to advancing renewable energy and sustainable technologies, which is continuously looking for ways to collaborate with the private sector.

 

“We really see Masdar City as a “living laboratory” for low-energy use, low-carbon, low-waste technologies that can be piloted on site. Masdar City’s role is to create knowledge that diversifies the UAE economy, as well as to be the place where you build a community of innovation and research.”

Sustainable urban development is another area of investment, where Masdar’s been increasingly concentrating its efforts.

“We are on a mission to build the world’s most sustainable city,” states Al Hosany, her words both inspiring and visionary, hoping to shape, influence and transform perceptions on urban development not only in the Middle East, but worldwide.

 

“We consider Masdar proof of concept for a global sustainable city – if we can make sustainability work in the harshest climate in the world, than surely cityscapes around the globe can be adapted to meet the needs of the future. Masdar City is guided by the three principles of sustainability – economic, environmental and social,” says Al Hosany.

Higher penetration of renewable technologies with their variable generation characteristics will require many fundamental changes in the way that electric power systems are planned and operated to maintain reliable service and to do so economically, Ms Hosany explains.

“There are challenges in developing renewable generation technologies, such as further reducing the capital costs and improving energy efficiencies of the various types of renewable resources, such as wind, solar PV, solar thermal, and tidal.”

 

The sector is in dire need of meaningful and thought-provoking programmes to further the development of large-scale energy storage technologies, which remain significantly underexploited.

As Ms Hosany rightly points out: “To seamlessly integrate renewable resources in the grid, research and development must address challenges that high penetration levels will have in power system planning and operation, and in grid connection.”

Consistent regulatory and pricing regimes, another grey area that often gets neglected by decision-makers and industry leaders alike, is deterring investment and discouraging the pursuit of innovative-thinking among researchers.

 

“While the cost of renewables has declined to a level comparable with other energy sources, the lack of a level playing field in some countries when it comes to subsidies, taxes and regulations, inhibits the adoption of clean energy solutions.

“It is also harder to attract inward investment when governments don’t have a policy framework that allows investors to make long-term plans. To a lesser extent energy storage and grid management are also challenges.”

 

But none of these ground-breaking projects would have been possible without the help and technological knowhow of conglomerates with decades of experience in developing innovative, ground-breaking technologies like GE, Siemens, Schneider and Samsung on the one hand, and small and medium enterprises, service providers and product developers, on the other.

Without doubt, the company is en route to grow in size and bring more glory to the region. But to do so it will need help from viable and trustworthy partners capable of creating innovation that not only leads to new ideas but also has commercial application in the world, making a difference to people’s lives.

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