Futuristic solar disc islands could be just the solution Ras Al Khaimah is looking for to power its all-important, but energy-hungry cement and building materials industry, Melanie Mingas finds out more about the prototype currently being developed in the emirate
Ras Al Khaimah is being forced to address an increasingly urgent dilemma; predominantly a manufacturing base, energy consumption is so high many businesses depend on generators and export gas may soon be needed to meet requirements.
A report produced last year by Oxford Business Group claimed that power shortages were the biggest hurdle to RAK’s industrial development. As the primary manufacturer of cement and pharmaceuticals in the region, industry requires 35-55% of the emirate’s entire supply and a number of power cuts have been reported in local media.
Yet one solution, currently in the testing stages, promises to address all of these issues while simultaneously cutting pollution and providing opportunities for the construction and manufacturing industries.
The idea is a solar island project pioneered by CSEM-UAE, a Swiss R&D company 51% owned by the Government of RAK, working in conjunction with the emirate’s investment authority (RAKIA) and solar module designer Nolaris.
Now, after five years of investment, testing and development, RAK’s vision to power the emirate using solar thermal technology is nearing reality. The three-phase project has just entered its second stage, after successful tests were conducted on a land-based prototype.
RAK now has the world’s largest, lightest and highest precision solar device tracking the sun. It is even visible from space.
The second phase will see the development of the extra flat solar collectors technology, with the third and final phase testing the steam circuitry by the end of 2011.
Initial testing established that the technology works and further tests will confirm enough power can be produced efficiently.
CSEM-UAE chief executive Dr Hamid Kayal said: “The basic technology is known and it works. The prototype is not to show we can produce electricity; it is to show how economically we can produce it, at what size and where.”
RAKIA says the commitment to alternative energy sources will also help attract environmentally-conscious businesses. In 2009, the innovation was recognised at the Honorary National Energy Globe Awards. “This is a goal of CSEM-UAE. We aim to build one of the world’s largest solar infrastructure facilities for R&D that is open to worldwide industrial and academic cooperation so as to create a platform to develop solutions adapted to the GCC region and to attract related industrial activity,” the organisation asserts.
Dr Kayal adds: “Hopefully other companies will be inspired to undertake similar initiatives.
“Electrical energy is essential and our objective is to provide a solution that will meet requirements with economic viability.”
The harnessing of solar power is categorised as direct or indirect conversion; direct capture uses photovoltaic panels to directly convert sunlight to electricity while indirect capture, as is used on the solar islands, tracks precisely the direct sunbeam to convert it into heat which is used to create steam and drive turbines.
The main advantage of solar thermal is that it allows energy to be used not only to generate electricity, but also as thermal energy to directly produce the solar cool for districts or desalinate sea water without going through electricity; which maximises the yield of conversion of the collected solar energy.
However, PTL Energy provides renewable solutions in the Middle East and Africa and suggests the need for solar energy extends beyond industry and sustainability.
“Our need for energy competes directly with our requirement for modern materials. Even without considering environmental impacts, it is clear that at some stage we will not be able to meet our ever-increasing energy needs from a finite supply of non-renewable resources,” explains PTL’s Muhammad Shahzad Qaiser. Studies by PTL indicate that the adoption of solar technology will nurture development of microenterprise, create direct employment and investment opportunities and facilitate micro-lending programmes to enable homes and businesses to purchase systems.
In addition, the company underlines the conservation of foreign exchange as a major catalyst for the continued advancement of the developing world; as much as 90% of export earnings pays for imported oil and the money saved can be redirected to infrastructure projects.
While practical use of solar energy to meet residential and industrial needs is still some years away, construction opportunities on this pioneering project are expected to arise soon.
Civil and steel work companies will be involved in the construction of both on and off shore platforms, a steam turbine manufacturer will be contracted to oversee the development of the island’s main components and the required thermal equipment must be manufactured.
“The prototype under development is foreseen to study the economical size and conditions to produce electricity from solar energy at a competitive price, compared to energy production using fossil fuels.”
During and after this study, CSEMUAE will open this infrastructure to joint development projects with industries and universities,” a RAKIA spokesperson told The Big Project.
“We’re now focusing on bio-tech and high-tech industries. In the past four years, 4500 licences were awarded and we are awarding up to 80 licences per month. We have chosen to be selective and focus on attracting genuine industries,” RAKIA CEO Dr Khater Massaad said in a statement.
CSEM-UAE is also in the process of preparing a study on solar and waste heat water desalination, with a pilot plant proposed for development in RAK by 2012.
The adoption of solar technology appears to solve all of RAK’s energy problems and it could soon be the case that the sky is far from the limit.