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Silvia Radan / 13 October 2012
Way west in the desert of Madinat Zayed, there is a man in charge of the ‘sun.
He makes sure its mighty power is captured and then shares it with the entire Abu Dhabi emirate. Meet Yousif Al Ali, the General Manager of Shams Power Company.
Known as Shams 1, this is the first major renewable energy plant built by Masdar in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi emirate, near Madinat Zayed. It is owned 60 per cent by Masdar, 20 per cent by Total of France and 20 per cent by Spain’s Abengoa Solar. When ready, towards the end of this year, Shams1, which in Arabic means “sun”, will produce 100 Megawatt concentrated solar power energy, which will be sent directly to the energy grid of Abu Dhabi.
After gaining work experience at Gemasolar, Valle1 and Valle2, all solar power plants of Torresol, a joint venture company between Masdar and Spain’s Sener, Emirati engineer Yousif Al Ali returned to the desert, where he helped developed Shams 1, and then took over its management earlier this year.
We took a drive to the desert sun to meet him.
How did you get into this work?
It’s a long way. I graduated 10 years ago from the UAE University in Al Ain in chemical engineering. I worked for Adnoc for some time, almost five years, as a process and plant engineer, and then I left to Masdar in early 2007.
In the beginning I joined Masdar Carbon, then moved to Masdar Power to work in renewable energy projects.
I was interested in the technology, in the projects that we were discussing at that time, in 2007. It’s a new concept, very interesting for me. I joined as project engineer. I worked with many projects with the Carbon unit, but with the clean energy unit I joined Gemasolar in Spain from the beginning and then Valle 1 and Valle 2.
I lived there in Spain for almost a year and a half, from 2009 to end of 2010. It was very interesting time for me. I worked on unique projects, especially the Gemasolar, which was my main focus because of its technology — the first of its kind. I have seen other towers, but the Gemasolar was the only tower working with molten salt to storage heat. It has 15 hours of energy storage.
You know, Gemasolar was the reason why I joined Masdar Power.
It was a very good opportunity for me in Spain to work on three plants and I did my MBA at the same time in Madrid, in one of the best schools in the world — the IE Business School, which is ranked number six in the world for MBA.
When I returned, I was responsible for the development of several projects in Masdar before joining Shams. So you see, it was a long way to Shams.
How does Shams and Gemasolar compare?
Gemasolar has unique technology, but Valle 1 and Valle 2 are very close to what we have here in Shams.
Of course, we face challenges here in UAE — to have the right contractors, to qualify the contractors, bring them up to speed, buying materials, dust, high temperature, all these things need to be suitable for UAE; you can’t have the same design as Spain.
For example, we have the air coolers. Normally in Spain they use water for cooling, but this is not possible in the UAE because we don’t want to waste water, so we use fans instead.
Did the experience in Spain helped?
Yes. It taught me about the construction of these projects, the challenges that we might face during the operations, even what kind of people to recruit. I really passed through a recruitment experience there in Spain. As you know, there is a big unemployment rate over there, so we got an offer from the Andalusian government, who told us they will bring a group of people and will do some training for them — the government will pay for them — and at the end of the training, we’ll select who we want to recruit.
Shams 1 to produce 100 MW solar power energy
These people didn’t have much experience in the field and with minimum qualifications, but we gave them weekly classes for one year, followed by exams. Because they wanted this job so much, we found that they did very well, and we recruited most of them.
So yes, we are doing almost the same here. We need people who are very committed and very enthusiastic about the plant and that’s it — we will qualify them.
Once the plant is up and running, we look to employ around 90 people.
What are the challenges so far?
Main challenge was working in this environment. You saw the pictures of the site before we started. Just desert and some camel farms. It was really a surprise for the contractor when he came, but it was the first time for them to work in this region. After some time, though, they built a very good base here, and very good relations, hiring good subcontractors, most of them being local companies that are doing very professional jobs.
Sure, there were a few people who wanted to leave. Maybe it was too hot, or it was family issues. We got a couple of them who wanted to leave because they got babies and wanted to stay with their wives.
We did have some difficulties in the recruitment — it’s not easy to find the right people — but it’s going on smoothly now. We will start with UAE nationals, who will consist of 25 to 30 per cent of total employees, and this will raise to 40 per cent in two years.
Now we are looking forward to the challenges of owning, operating and maintaining the plant.
How do you enjoy the work?
I come to Shams twice a week and the rest of time I work in the Masdar head office in Abu Dhabi. I feel very comfortable here in the desert, but I have to be in Abu Dhabi. It’s really a good, relaxing environment here. Yes, we work longer hours here, but at the end of the day, we come to this relaxing place, the Liwa Tilal hotel. Normally I spend the night here, but tonight I’m taking my friend, Abdulaziz Al Obaidli back to Abu Dhabi and we’ll return tomorrow morning. He is a process engineer, by the way, doing his PhD with Masdar at Shams.
You know, Emirati boys with high grades in school mostly go on to study engineering or medicine. It wasn’t about liking it or not liking it. Oil and gas was everything in Abu Dhabi. When you grow up seeing how important these fields are you always imagine yourself an engineer working for oil and gas. It was the best thing I could achieve.
Are you happy with your choice?
I think we are bringing something new to this country, something that is really important for the development of our economy, which needs energy to keep developing. We are creating a diverse source of energy — there is nuclear, there is renewable and conventional energy.
I’m emotionally very attached to Shams now. I think our whole team is here to stay for the next 25 years. Of course, I’m always keen on new challenges, new projects.
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