June 25th, 2010

A Slight Miscalculation…No Solar in Abu Dhabi? Learnings from Being First Movers in Cleantech


A funny thing was recently discovered in the middle east. The folks planning Masdar, the zero-carbon, zer0-waste and (supposedly) 100% renewable energy (proposed) city just outside Abu Dhabi did a little calculation on the solar resource they could expect in the area. All along they had figured to develop large solar arrays just outside the city to power everything. Wind was taken off the table earlier in the planning of the city as there really isn’t much of a wind resource in the area.

But solar. Now we KNOW there’s a great solar resource in the UAE, right? The country where nobody goes outside because it’s too hot, where people leave their AC and cold water running while they’re gone on vacation so the house is livable when they return, and the country that doesn’t really even HAVE sidewalks because, well, it’s too damn hot to walk anywhere.

Their calculations regarding the solar resource in the area apparently didn’t even happen because it was so obvious. They must have just estimated… Because, now, a few years into the plan? It appears  the initial ‘calculation’ was off by, oh, about double. That’s right. Apparently there are sandstorms (shocker) and a consistent haze from the UAE’s proximity to the Persian Gulf. These two factors dramatically cut the available solar resource in the UAE to about half of what could be expected in other similar latitudes.

Why does this matter. Well, for one it puts a damper on the solar dreams of Masdar. But, if we take a step back, it dramatically illustrates a common problem in the renewable energy industry. So many projects throw money around, make plans, and shoot for the stars without ever really doing their due diligence.

Here’s a comparison. Cape Wind was doing something no one had ever done in the USA. They had to forge ahead blind in some regards because the permitting structure and financing partners didn’t exist when they started the project back in 2001. Now they’ve spent 40+ million dollars and it’s still not done. While I don’t necessarily agree with the public outreach and incorporation methods of the Cape Wind project, its an example of a project that was in a position to fly blind and not feel dumb if something came out of left field (like Indian burial grounds 5 miles out to sea) because it was, for many intensive purposes, a first.

Now let’s take Masdar. There’s an iphone app for sun-eye for crying out loud!  Not to say that’s the technology to use in this case, but solar resource is NOT a hard thing to quantify. Had no one built a solar project (even on a house) in the UAE that could have spoken up and said, “Gee, this is producing a lot less energy than I thought it would…?”

Simple. That’s what a lot of this industry is. And yet we see time and time again people missing the trees for the forest.

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Jesse Gossett

About Jesse Gossett

Jesse Gossett was born in the wilderness of Washington State and is currently the Director of Community Affairs at Emergent Energy Group. His efforts focus on developing new ways of helping clients, staying abreast of renewable energy policy and regulations, and overall project management. Emergent Energy Groups plans, designs, and facilitates the advancement of community focused energy and sustainability solutions. Our contribution helps public and private entities assess, optimize, and create on-site clean energy systems.Emergent Energy Group has recently won Business Week's 'Top 25 Under 25 Competition'.

  • Jessica

    Wow! A pivotal part of their sustainability plans and they never did the research? So much dumb money out there.

  • http://www.thegreenlightdistrikt.com Chris Williams

    Haha! I know, kinda like nuclear power plants, who knew they would blow up! or gasoline engine, those pesky little CO2 machines.

    I'd agree that research can be hard, but there are always unforeseen consequences.

    It also reminds me that investors are just like people, and customers, they can be tricked too.

  • Anonymous

    I hate to say something that might remotely contribute to stereotype or cultural insensitivity. That said, there are times when history and culture help us to understand people’s foibles and tragic mistakes.

    First caveat in mind, I might understate a principle: people whose economy developed on top of a sea of liquid gold are people who will come to the concept of ‘due diligence’ fairly slowly.

  • http://www.thegreenlightdistrikt.com Chris Williams

    Gotta love the anonymous comments! Well, my response is simply that I doubt a lot of the first solar/wind projects in the states went very smoothly….they probably just didn’t get a lot of PR!