20,000 UAE homes powered by solar energy in 2015
Abu Dhabi - Shams 1 is the first concentrated solar power plant in region.
Some 20,000 homes in the UAE were powered last year with energy from the sun. That means 216,483 megawatts hour of solar power, all coming from Shams 1, the first concentrated solar power (CSP) plant not just in the UAE, but in Middle East and North Africa, which this March celebrates its third anniversary.
"You should feel proud you are working for one of the most strategic developments in the country," said Abdulaziz Al Obaidli, general manager of Shams 1, while addressing the plant's employees during a special ceremony on Wednesday.
"If you remember, the President, His Highness Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, came here in person three years ago to inaugurate the plant. He hasn't done this for any other plant, so this is how important Shams 1 is," he added.
Spread over 2.5 square kilometres in the desert of Madinat Zayed, Abu Dhabi emirate's Western Region, Shams 1 is a sight to behold - five million cubic metres of sand was removed here to accommodate 258,048 parabolic mirrors that follow the daily journey of the sun, from east to west, capturing its light, which hits on oil tubes, causing them to heat up to 393 degrees Celsius. This heat is used to create steam from boiling water, a steam powerful enough to turn a turbine that generates electricity.
All the solar power energy is send to the national grid, mixing with the other sources of energy. In five years from now, the UAE plans to have 24 per cent of its national grid energy from solar power and other clean sources.
One of the first and the largest CSP power plants in the world, Shams 1 is helping disperse of about 175,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, which is equivalent to planting 1.5 million trees or removing 15,000 cars from Abu Dhabi's roads.
"When we opened the plant three years ago, the plan was to have two more plants like this one, but the price of Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels got far more competitive, and the UAE is now moving to the PV technology," explained Al Obaidli.
Although the UAE seems ideal for solar power, solar plants do not come without challenges, as proven by Shams 1. The biggest one of them all is dust.
Wind in the Western Region can reach over 100 kilometres at times, creating a lot of dust, which acts like a thick veil between the sun and the solar mirrors.
"We are closer to the Equator than Morocco and Spain - where other solar plants are, yet we get less sunshine than they do because of the wind and dust," Al Obaidli pointed out.
In fact, June and July, the months with the longest daylight in the year, produce the least amount of solar energy due to being the windiest and thus, the dustiest.
"We just can't send people to clean the sky," he said.
On a daily basis, though, he sends people to clean the mirrors. The six firefighter trucks wash the mirrors every night, which means each mirror gets cleaned up once a week.
Occasionally, the water jets or objects blown by the wind break the mirror - around 60 of them break in a month. Yet, they are highly resistant to wind.
"We had two major storms; one in 2013, when the wind reached 120km per hour, and it damaged 20 mirrors. Then came last week's. In Abu Dhabi the wind reached 60 kilometres per hour, but here, in Madinat Zayed, we got 130km per hour, but only 10 mirrors broke," said Al Obaidli.
Heavy storms, though, were taken into consideration when building Shams 1, so a wind barrier was placed all around it, the lower part being a concrete wall to stop the dust and the upper part being a mesh to break the wind.