08/07/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Solar Ambition in an Oil-rich Desert: UAE's Sustainable Vision

As mobile apps with the Android platform changed how people would interact and communicate back in 2006, Masdar rose on the Persian Gulf peninsula of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a first step in turning a grand and bold vision into reality.

Out of the desert Masdar City sprouted. In 2006, the government of Abu Dhabi financed the project. Designed by the British architectural firm Foster and Partners, the new metropolis would be green from day one. Masdar City had a singular focus on sustainability -- a low-carbon, low-waste city powered by renewable energy.

One question remains: Will Masdar beat Copenhagen's goal to become the world's first carbon-neutral city by 2025?

Masdar City, which gets all the press, represents one-fourth of the great plan by the UAE to transform an energy-rich nation into a clean energy regional center. Masdar is like a giant, ongoing lab experiment. It's the place where new products, materials, systems, and technologies for clean energy are being studied, designed, planned, and put into live use with the results and lessons learned refined and integrated into the next project phase or iteration.

The other verticals within Masdar's organizational umbrella include the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which partners with MIT; Masdar Capital that invests in clean tech, including the world's largest offshore wind farm in the London Array, which went live on July 5; and the first phase of an ambitious solar energy project in the desert called Shams-1.

Masdar is made up of three business units and supported by a graduate level research university, Masdar Institute. Those units are: Masdar City, Masdar Capital and Masdar Clean Energy, which invested in both the London Array and Shams 1 solar plant.

The latter is part of an overall vision and goal to deliver 7 percent of Abu Dhabi's power in the form of renewable energy by 2020. Can it be done? At some point it will. The target for the start of the next decade is a good place to aim.

What's more important is Masdar's long-term goals and strategies for sustainable living, its influence as a green trail-blazer in the region for its bigger and more populated neighbors, and its willingness to test, experiment, and learn from its projects so they can improve upon them for the next phase.

I came in contact with Masdar City, first learning about it when I met Masdar Director Sustainability Dr. Nawal Al-Hosany, who is also the Director of the Zayed Future Energy Prize, at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit in New York this spring.

That was followed with impeccable timing in May in a Bloomberg TV profile, Masdar: A Green City, which focused on the urban hub, but not the other ventures, projects or education institution.

Shams Solar Power
A keystone to the clean energy goal of Abu Dhabi was the design, studies, and construction of the Shams-1 Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) project in the desert south of the UAE capital, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) away.

Sure, a desert sounds like the ultimate place to install a solar power plant. There's plenty of sun. But in the desert there were plenty of challenges, too, for the Shams Power Company to overcome.

From an engineering perspective the challenge was how to reduce the dust in the air, which would block the direct rays of the sun from fully reaching the panels, and how to thwart the movement of the dunes. Then from a design vista, they had to figure out a way to conserve water, yet clean the solar panels, since there isn't a reservoir the plant could tap into the middle of the desert.

For the sand and dust clouds, the design team came up with windbreakers. At seven meters (22.5 ft.) high, made of concrete and semi-porous fence, the barriers retard the wind-driven dunes, while reducing the sandy dust floating over the solar panels. For the problem of lessening water consumption, the team designed an Air-Cooled Condenser (ACC) that "condense the low pressure steam at the turbine outlet. The use of the ACC will result in saving hundreds of millions of gallons each year," as stated in a white paper, Shams 1: Utilizing Challenges for Higher Efficiency.

Other mechanical, electrical, and chemical systems were used to drive as much efficiency and decrease water usage as possible, including using, "synthetic oil as Heat transfer Fluid. The oil runs in the tubes at an adequate flow rate to absorb the heat of concentrated solar irradiance and exchanges it with feed water at the steam generator," - from the same report.

Reaching out to Masdar
In a phone interview with Omar Zaafrani, Manager Communications Strategy & Planning at Masdar, I asked him, "What's next for the Shams CSP project?"

"In March, Shams-1 became operational, producing energy to the electric grid. It has since been increasing its output to meet our goals regarding the plant's performance and how it functions," Mr. Zaafrani said.

"How many phases will there be and how long a roadmap?" I asked.

"Believe it or not, we are not looking at photovoltaic panel technology as superior to CSP. Since 2010, the price has dropped by two-thirds for PV. Those economics have shifted our attention to the PV market, which has become more competitive and very dynamic."

On Masdar, Omar Zaafrani said, "Our organizational structure allows us to address large-scale deployments even though we are medium size company. We can shift our focus as needed, and allocate resources where they make the most economic sense and have the biggest impact. Masdar has $540 million under management through our private equity unit, of that total we have invested $100 million in the United States. We have a flexible model that's designed for growth with a focus on clean tech industry."

"How does the Shams-1 CSP tie into Masdar and Abu Dhabi's green, sustainability master plan for the future?" I asked.

"When we launched Masdar in 2006, a lot of countries in the region were perplexed. They were scratching their heads. Why was an oil-rich country proactively seeking to diversify its energy portfolio? We saw clean energy not as a threat, but as an opportunity to improve the energy sector. So we turned our attention to renewable energy."

He paused, and recalled, "Then in 2009, we noticed a shift in perception. First, in Saudi Arabia, then in Kuwait, and then Qatar. Masdar helped foster that perception in the region and it will make technology more competitive in the long-run."

On Abu Dhabi's goal to achieve 7 percent renewable energy by 2020, Omar Zaafrani said,
"Masdar's projects contribute toward that goal. But to reach it will require other parties in the UAE to help with that project. We are in a leadership role. We have a voice of in the UAE region on climate change, green growth, and sustainability. Masdar City is a proof of concept."

For a start-up with 250 people, Masdar has come a long way since 2006.