A solar power plant in the Middle East is proving that large-scale sun energy is a viable option in the region … but it’s...

A solar power plant in the Middle East is proving that large-scale sun energy is a viable option in the region … but it’s just a warmup for a much bigger solar plant of a different kind soon to come.

Just entering its third year of operation, the 10-megawatt (MW) photovoltaic (PV) plant is located in the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar City, a planned municipal development designed to be zero-waste, zero-carbon and entirely powered by renewable energy sources. The facility, which features 87,777 solar panels, provides all the energy needed for the city’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and exports its excess electricity into the Abu Dhabi National Grid.

“The utility-scale PV plant has also enabled our engineers to gain insights into ways different PV technologies respond to the region’s climactic conditions,” says Frank Wouters, director of Masdar Power. “The expertise and knowledge gained will serve as a valuable reference point for other utility-scale PV projects in the region.”

Solar panels aren’t the only way in which the region plans to plug into sun energy. Masdar Power is also developing a concentrated solar power (CSP) plant — which uses mirrors or lenses to focus sunlight into a small area, usually to produce steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity — farther to the southwest. The 100-MW Shams One plant at Madinat Zayed will be the largest such facility in the Middle East, as well as one of the largest CSP facilities in the world. The project is set to be complete in late 2012.

There’s no irony in the oil-rich Middle East turning to renewable energy sources like the sun. Faced with aging giant oil fields and fast-growing populations that are consuming more domestic oil supplies, leaving less available for export, leaders in the region are increasingly realizing the need to develop alternative resources. One day, the area could even export solar-generated electricity to Europe in much the same way it exports crude oil today.

Planners behind a massive project called Desertec, for example, envision building a network of concentrating solar power plants, wind turbines and even biomass power plants across a vast stretch of North Africa and the Middle East. The project could keep the lights on not only in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region but could generate up to 15 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050, according to the companies behind the effort. Between now and then, though, there’s a lot of work left to make that happen.


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