The UAE continues to lead the charge toward a carbon neutral planet

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Danny Sebright.

Danny Sebright.

The 7th World Future Energy Summit (WFES) kicks off January 20 in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where a nation long-known for its vast reserves of traditional fossil fuels is now the premier destination for private sector investment and cutting edge technological development in alternative energy. 

With a growing local knowledge base, increasingly advanced infrastructure, a national leadership committed to long term energy efficiency and sustainability, and an open and inviting corporate climate, the UAE is evolving into a global incubator for renewable energy research and development. Leading this transformation are a range of innovative American companies entering into sustainable, long term partnerships with their Emirati counterparts.

Since its inception in 2008, WFES – expected to draw 30,000 delegates and visitors from more than 170 countries this year – has rapidly emerged as the preeminent international event for government and industry thought leaders and decision makers working to find viable affordable and sustainable solutions to the world’s growing energy demands.  For the UAE, now a recognized global leader in renewable energy and clean technology capacity building, the year of 2013 proved to be a true watershed, making 2014’s summit theme, “Powering the Future of Energy Innovation and Investment,” especially pertinent.

With global population now exceeding 7bn and the world’s consumption of energy set to increase 56 percent by 2040, the UAE has incorporated its own sustainable economic diversification strategies – among them UAE Vision 2021 and Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 – into a global effort to address energy shortage and climate change.

The Emirati leadership has embarked on these long term visions to diversify their economy away from oil and gas, notably by committing to invest nearly $102bn in alternative energy by 2020.  In doing so, they endeavor to build a sustainable, local infrastructure and knowledge base in clean and renewable technologies to provide livelihood and meet energy needs for Emiratis and the broader region for generations to come. In global recognition of the UAE’s emerging leadership in clean energy innovation, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the world’s first intergovernmental organisation dedicated to promoting renewable energy use, is headquartered in Abu Dhabi. Formed in 2009, IRENA counts 163 countries among its members, including the US and the European Union.

The UAE has set a range of ambitious efficiency benchmarks to meet by decade’s end. In 2020, 2,500 megawatts (MW) of the national energy grid will be provided by renewable energy, accounting for 7 percent of the country’s overall energy mix. An astonishing 5.6 gigawatts (GW) will come from the nation’s peaceful nuclear programme – four nuclear power plants (two already under construction) planned by the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) and their global partners in western Abu Dhabi emirate – which will provide for up to 25 percent of the country’s electricity needs upon completion at decade’s end. This means that in under seven years, alternative energy will make up roughly 32 percent of the UAE’s national energy grid.  Consequently, by 2030, CO2 emissions from energy production will be reduced by 30 percent of their current level in the Emirates – a truly astounding figure.

Despite these seemingly lofty goals, 2013 showed the world that dramatic progress is underway in this Gulf nation.  This past March, Masdar, a Mubadala Development Company subsidiary focused on future energy research, and host of WFES, inaugurated the $600m Shams 1 solar plant, a 100MW concentrated solar power facility in western Abu Dhabi emirate. 

The largest renewable energy project in the Arabian Gulf, Shams now powers 20,000 homes in Abu Dhabi and represents only a portion of the 750MW of renewable grid capacity installed this past year as part of Masdar’s portfolio of investment projects working to decarbonise growing economies worldwide.  In 2013, these included large-scale solar plants and wind farms in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  Back in the UAE, Masdar completed the 30MW Sir Bani Yas Island wind farm, the largest in the Middle East. Locally, Abu Dhabi plans for renewables to supply 7 percent of their emirate’s energy needs by 2020.

The rapid pace of development is not limited to Abu Dhabi, however. In Dubai, the year 2020, long a target date to meet various economic benchmarks, has a newfound importance. With the emirate’s successful bid to host the World Expo 2020 announced in November, Dubai now aims to be among the top ten sustainable and carbon-neutral cities of the world by the end of the decade.  With a set target of 5 percent energy demand to be met by renewables, the leadership unveiled the 2014 State of Energy Report for Dubai at the United Nations this past December. Developed in partnership with Dubai stakeholders and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), it represents a sustained strategic drive to emerge as a global hub of innovation, investment, and technology and a model for environmental and social development across the Gulf region and the world. Dubai’s Integrated Energy Strategy details how the emirate will reduce its energy demand by 30 percent by 2030. Meeting this objective will, in part, be due to the expected completion that year of the 1,000MW Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, of which the first 13MW flagship section was inaugurated this past October by Arizona-based US power company, First Solar, only 195 days after breaking ground.

The majority of the UAE.’s alternative energy schemes represent massive state-backed initiatives. But in order for long term sustainable markets to take hold, the private sector must seize this moment and link up with an innovative industrial supply chain. American companies are leading the way in this charge, partnering with their Emirati counterparts to champion these ambitious energy initiatives. Clean Power Finance, a solar financial services startup based in San Francisco, is a finalist for this year’s Zayed Future Energy Prize, which will be awarded at WFES. The prize encourages corporations, NGOs, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) innovating in the field of renewables and sustainability to compete for millions of dollars in prize money to further their research and development. In December, the Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence (DCCE) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Opower, an Arlington, Virginia-based energy tech startup, to work together on multiple energy efficiency and carbon reduction strategies for Dubai in the coming years. Colorado-based CH2M HILL has partnered with Masdar to carry out program management at Masdar City, its carbon neutral urban development and research center under construction in the desert outskirts of Abu Dhabi city. Making its home here is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a world class graduate-level academic institution founded in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to train Emiratis and UAE residents in alternative energy and sustainability. Finally, this past Wednesday, General Electric unveiled its “Ecomagination Centre” – a $10m, 840 sqm clean tech hub in Masdar City showcasing GE advanced technology solutions and offering training in energy and water efficiency.

As governments around the world begin to incorporate sustainability into their long term economic development plans, efficiency of renewable energy conversion technology is increasing while the cost of manufacturing and installation simultaneously falls.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UAE. With all the accomplishments of the past year, 2014 represents a primed opportunity for investment in the UAE.’s alternative energy sector, which will serve as a key catalyst for job growth locally and globally. The diverse opportunities in this sector – solar, hydro, wind, geothermal, biomass, nuclear – providing American and international firms a chance to enter on the ground level will be showcased during Abu Dhabi’s World Future Energy Summit.  International guests will undoubtedly appreciate the UAE as the unparalleled destination for private sector job opportunity and investment, high profit yield, and cutting-edge technology development.

Danny Sebright is the President of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council and a Senior Advisor at The Cohen Group in Washington, DC.

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