Intelligent Energy

Sheik 'n Bake: Dubai's ruler plans huge solar farm

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Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's 1-gigawatt project would easily be the Middle East's largest solar plant. Is this the start of a sensible trend for a sun-drenched land?

Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Photo from IMF via Wikipedia.

Think "Middle East" and "natural resource," and the first word that springs to mind is "oil."

That truism masks another of the region's long neglected power generation assets: Sunshine. For all the area's baking hot days, you might think that some Middle East country would lead the world in solar power.

But no. In a recent ranking by One Block Off the Grid, not a single Middle East nation made the Top 10, while such bright lands as Germany, Japan, South Korea, Belgium and the Czech Republic did.

Enter Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He's the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, to which Dubai belongs. Earlier this week he announced plans on his website - yes, the Sheik has a website -  to build a 1-gigawatt solar park to help power the emirate.

He also attended a launch event on Monday in Dubai.

"The UAE is striving to develop and boost its rich resources and expertise in the international energy markets and enhance its leading role as a world centre for renewable energy research and development," said UAE president Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as quoted by the country's English language newspaper, the Khaleej Times at the event.

At one gigawatt, the Dubai solar park will rank right up there with some of the world's biggest solar facilities. It would represent an exponential spike in Dubai's solar electricity, which today today stands at a mere 4.5 megawatts, according to the The National. That's for a population of some 2 million people (about 75 percent of which are male - I'm not sure how that works).

A gigawatt would be 10 times the size of what is believed to be the largest planned solar facility in the Middle East, the 100 megawatt Shams 1 in neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi, due for completion next year according to Recharge News (subscription may be necessary).

But Dubai is not exactly racing towards its 1 GW output. The dignitaries said the 48-square kilometer park will come on line in stages, and won't be complete until 2030, with a mix of photovoltaic and solar thermal technology.  Dubai's Supreme Council of Energy hopes to select a contractor by this summer for the first 10 MW, which would connect to the grid by 2013.  That phase will cost an estimated 120 million dirham ($33 million), and the total project will cost around 12 billion dirham ($3.3 billion), the Khaleej Times says.

Even when the gigawatt connects in 2030, solar will still power only 5 percent of Dubai, according to Khaleej. Natural gas will have a 71 percent share, and coal and nuclear will contribute 12 percent each.

Oh. The name of the facility? The Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, of course. Ah monarchies.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure