The UAE has been a driving force in funding wind power overseas, but the green energy source has found itself in the doldrums closer to home. The country’s obvious solar potential has also had the effect of putting other renewables in the shade. That could be about to change as attention focuses on the wind potential offered by locations such as the power-hungry Northern Emirates and islands such as Sir Bani Yas, while at the same time technology to produce power from lower wind speeds improves. Such technological developments are especially relevant for the UAE, which typically lacks the gales that drive the largest of existing wind farms in Europe and North America.
Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s eight-year-old renewable energy company, has taken a lead in investing in wind projects overseas. After wind-mapping the country, it is also scouting possible locations for turbines at home. The Mubadala Development unit has more than US$1 billion invested in energy projects around the world. It is also a key player in the emirate’s attempt to achieve 7 per cent renewable energy capacity by 2020. Dubai’s renewable target is 5 per cent.
Masdar is one of three major investors in the Middle East’s first utility-scale wind power project in Jordan. The 117-megawatt Tafila Wind Farm is expected to increase the country’s total power capacity by 3 per cent and is estimated to cost about $290 million. The UAE wind-mapping project is about identifying the best locations for potential turbine sites. Among the places that look initially favourable is Sir Bani Yas Island, where Masdar has already presented plans to the Government for a 30MW project. But finding the wind is only half of the problem.
The cost of erecting the turbines and their gigantic blades can be prohibitive without the right infrastructure. To that extent, identifying commercially viable locations for wind power in the UAE is more challenging than doing the same for solar projects, where there are fewer variables to consider. “The commercial viability of a wind project depends on the wind project itself, the specifics of the project and where it is located,” said Ahmed Al Awadi, the head of business support at Masdar’s clean energy unit. “The Northern Emirates are mountainous, and so in order to build your plant you may have to build additional infrastructure to accommodate the vehicles that would take the blades there.” Modern blades made for the largest wind turbines are vast. The largest rotors made by Siemens extend more than 150 metres, competing with the wing span of an Airbus A380 superjumbo.
One sweep of such a rotor covers more than 18,600 square metres, or two-and-a-half football fields. Another factor is the relatively weak wind speeds available throughout the UAE. However, research and development into generating power at much lower velocities than was viable last decade has yielded positive results in the past five years. “At first sight the country doesn’t look very windy, but there are locations where it makes sense to develop wind powers,” said Nicholas Fichaux, the programme officer for resource assessment at the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency. But even in the absence of formal government-supported utility-scale wind farms, small private turbines are already operating in the country where grid power is lacking. “You see quite a lot of turbines already on the road to Liwa,” said Mr Fichaux. “You tend to see a small solar panel and a wind turbine beside it. I was surprised because you may not think there is enough wind in the desert, but there is.”
While weak wind speeds represent one of the biggest challenges for the industry locally, globally the headwinds are economic in nature. The increasing availability of shale gas offers the potential to build cheaper gas-fired power plants – even as the cost of producing wind power continues to fall. Siemens, one of the world’s biggest players in wind energy, says the cost of producing wind power in the United States has fallen 43 per cent since 2008, while the power generated per turbine has jumped 30 per cent. It estimates that the total cost of providing wind power has fallen by 90 per cent since 1980